Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Climate Change as Liberal Politics

President Obama surprised many – including me – by highlighting the challenge of global climate change in his second inaugural address on Monday.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Mr. Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Predictably, the president’s remarks drew criticism from his opponents. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group financed by the oil-billionaire Koch brothers, had this to say about the president. “His address read like a liberal laundry list with global warming at the top,” Mr. Phillips said. “Americans have rejected environmental extremism in the past and they will again.”

"We will respond to the threat of climate change...."
Some readers may be curious about the term “extremism.” I think the more interesting link is between “global warming” and “liberal laundry list.”

It turns out that Mr. Phillips isn’t alone. Nearly every pundit I heard after the speech – on both the right and the left – made the linkage: climate change is a liberal cause. To some of us, that’s like calling cancer research, quantum physics or the ozone layer a liberal cause – or a conservative one, for that matter. But we still can’t deny the facts: Americans everywhere know that on the whole, progressives tend to take climate science more seriously, and conservatives tend to discount it.

I’ve looked into this before, and shown that we’ll look long and hard before finding an atmospheric scientist of any political persuasion whatsoever who doesn’t take human-caused climate change seriously.  But despite ever-more-exhaustive scientific research, in the political realm, the debate rages on, and the liberal-conservative labels persist.

Well, yesterday, I read a small book by MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel. Listed on Time Magazine’s “Time 100: The People Who Shape Our World,” Dr. Emanuel summed up the brief history of the politicization of the climate discussion in a few insightful – and surprisingly even-handed – paragraphs. I thought I’d share them with you:

From: What We Know About Climate Change; Kerry Emanuel

Especially in the United States, the political debate about global climate change became polarized along the conservative-liberal axis some decades ago. Although we take this for granted now, it is not entirely obvious why the chips fell the way they did. One can easily imagine conservatives embracing the notion of climate change in support of actions they might like to see anyway.

Conservatives have usually been strong supporters of nuclear power, and few can be happy about our current dependence on foreign oil. The United States is renowned for its technological innovation and should be at an advantage in making money from any global sea change in energy-producing technology: consider the prospect of selling new means of powering vehicles and electrical generation to China’s rapidly expanding economy. But none of this has happened.

Paradoxes abound on the political left as well. A meaningful reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions will require a shift in the means of producing energy, as well as conservation measures. But such alternatives as nuclear and wind power are viewed with deep ambivalence by the left. Senator Kennedy, by most measures our most liberal senator, is strongly opposed to a project to develop wind energy near his home in Hyannis, and environmentalists have only just begun to rethink their visceral opposition to nuclear power. Had it not been for green opposition, the United States today might derive most of its electricity from nuclear power, as does France; thus the environmentalists must accept a large measure of responsibility for today’s most critical environmental problem.

There are other obstacles to taking a sensible approach to the climate problem. We have preciously few representatives in Congress with a background or interest in science, and some of them display an active contempt for the subject. As long as we continue to elect scientific illiterates like James Inhofe, who believes global warming to be a hoax, we will lack the ability to engage in intelligent debate….

… The evolution of the scientific debate about anthropogenic climate change illustrates both the value of skepticism and the pitfalls of partisanship. Although the notion that fossil-fuel combustion might increase CO2 and alter climate originated in the 19th century, general awareness of the issue dates to a National Academy of Sciences report in 1979 that warned that doubling CO2 content might lead to a three-to-eight-degree increase in global average temperature.

Then, in 1988, James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, set off a firestorm of controversy by testifying before Congress that he was virtually certain that a global-warming signal had emerged from the background climate variability. At that time, less was known about natural climate variability before the beginning of systematic instrumental records in the nineteenth century, and only a handful of global climate simulations had been performed. Most scientists were deeply skeptical of Hansen’s claims; I certainly was. It is important to interpret the word “skeptical” literally here: it was not that we were sure of the opposite, merely that we thought the jury was out.

At roughly this time, radical environmental groups and a handful of scientists influenced by them leapt into the fray with rather obvious ulterior motives. This jump-started the politicization of the issue, and conservative groups, financed by auto makers and big oil, responded with counterattacks. This also marked the onset of an interesting and disturbing phenomenon that continues to this day. A very small number of climate scientists adopted dogmatic positions and in so doing lost credibility among the vast majority who remained committed to an unbiased search for answers.

On the left, an argument emerged urging fellow scientists to deliberately exaggerate their findings so as to galvanize an apathetic public, an idea that, fortunately, failed in the scientific arena but which took root in Hollywood, culminating in the 2004 release of The Day After Tomorrow.

On the right, the search began for negative feedbacks that would counter increasing greenhouse gases: imaginative ideas emerged, but they have largely failed the acid test of comparison to observations. But as the dogmatists grew increasingly alienated from the scientific mainstream, they were embraced by political groups and journalists, who thrust them into the limelight. This produced a gross distortion in the public perception of the scientific debate. Ever eager for the drama of competing dogmas, the media largely ignored mainstream scientists whose hesitations did not make good copy. As the global-warming signal continues to emerge, this soap opera is kept alive by a dwindling number of deniers constantly tapped for interviews by journalists who pretend to look for balance.

While the American public has been misinformed by a media obsessed with sensational debate, climate scientists developed a way forward that helps them to compare notes and test one another’s ideas and also creates a valuable communication channel. Called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, it produces a detailed summary of the state of the science every four years, with the next one due out in [2014]. Although far from perfect, the IPCC involves serious climate scientists from many countries and has largely withstood political attack and influence….

Emanuel concluded his discussion on a somewhat hopeful note: “The extremists are being exposed and relegated to the sidelines, and when the media stop amplifying their views, their political counterparts will have nothing left to stand on. When this happens, we can get down to the serious business of tackling the most complex and perhaps the most consequential problem ever confronted by mankind.”

We pray for this day to come soon. We note, with sorrow, that Emanuel wrote those hopeful words in 2007. And six years later, the media is still amplifying the pronouncements of discredited spokesmen claiming to rebut mainstream climate science. And whatever our political views, we will all equally bear the consequences of an injured climate system.

Let us work and pray for the national will and global resolve to protect our Father’s beloved planet while we can still make a meaningful difference -- for ourselves, and for God's  most vulnerable people and creatures.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, John, for this perspective-offering piece. I've often wondered how this issue became so politicized. I sense things changing slowly, but we still seem to have many hurdles ahead. Narrowing the divide between liberal and conservative on this is a step in the right direction. Pundit commentary aside, I felt Obama's speech summoned us to a new level of unity on this issue, calling us to think and act for the common good. It is a necessary and important first step.