The ugly truth about climate denial
Little should surprise us in a world where intolerable injustices are widely ignored, from preventable hunger, poverty and disease to irreversible environmental destruction to the global oppression of girls and women; where wealth disparities are at record levels and wealthy bankers are bailed out by the people they’ve bankrupted; where huge corporations pay no taxes and get subsidized by the public; where a war based on lies and deceptions that resulted in unimaginable carnage is heralded as a success; where the assault on basic rights and liberties is greeted with a yawn — if not a cheer; where sports games arouse more passion and emotion than a million babies dying; where a minor celebrity infraction receives more attention than an epidemic of sexual violence in which young girls have their insides shredded with broken bottles and sticks of wood.
In this atmosphere of denial and self-destruction, few things capture the zeitgeist better than the American right’s reckless dismissal of climate change:
Late last week, the nation’s pre-eminent scientific advisory group, the National Research Council arm of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a report called “America’s Climate Choices.” As scientific reports go, its key findings were straightforward and unequivocal: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment.” Among those risks in the USA: more intense and frequent heat waves, threats to coastal communities from rising sea levels, and greater drying of the arid Southwest.
Coincidentally, USA TODAY’s Dan Vergano reported Monday, a statistics journal retracted a federally funded study that had become a touchstone among climate-change deniers. The retraction followed complaints of plagiarism and use of unreliable sources, such as Wikipedia. Taken together, these developments ought to leave the deniers in the same position as the “birthers,” who continue to challenge President Obama’s American citizenship — a vocal minority that refuses to accept overwhelming evidence.
Here are the facts:
The more carbon that gets released into the atmosphere, the higher the average temperature rises. That’s a scientific fact. Human activities, such as driving, flying, building and even turning on the lights, are the biggest contributor to the release of carbon. That too, is a fact.
Yet millions of Americans, including most Republican officials, are in absolute denial.
Bill McKibben maps out the philosophical terrain:
On what is quite possibly the single biggest issue the planet has faced, American conservatism has reached a near-unanimous position, and that position is: pay no attention to all those scientists. Conservative opinion has been steadily hardening—for decades Republicans were part of the coalition on almost every environmental issue, but now it’s positively weird to think that as late as 2004, McCain thought it would make sense for a GOP presidential candidate to position himself as a fighter for climate legislation.
One crude answer is money. The fossil fuel industry has deep wells of it—no business in history has been as profitable as finding, refining, and combusting coal, oil, and gas. Six of the ten largest companies on earth are in the fossil-fuel business. Those companies have spent some small part of their wealth in recent years to underwrite climate change denialism: Jane Mayer’s excellent New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers is just the latest and best of a string of such exposés dating back to Ross Gelbspan’s 1997 book The Heat Is On. But while oil and coal contributions track remarkably close to political alignment for many senators, they are not the only explanation. Money only exerts political influence if it can be connected to some ideological stance—even Inhofe won’t stand up and say, “I think global warming is a hoax because my campaign treasurer told me to.” In fact, some conservatives have begun to question endless fossil-fuel subsidies—since we’ve known how to burn coal for hundreds of years, it’s not clear why the industry needs government help.
No, something else is causing people to fly into a rage about climate. Read the comments on one of the representative websites: Global warming is a “fraud” or a “plot.” Scientists are liars out to line their pockets with government grants. Environmentalism is nothing but a money-spinning “scam.” These people aren’t reading the science and thinking, I have some questions about this. They’re convinced of a massive conspiracy.
The odd and troubling thing about this stance is not just that it prevents action. It’s also profoundly unconservative. If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.
David Roberts connects the dots, tying denialism to the narrow worldview promoted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh:
However muted denialism may have gotten in the late 2000s, it has come roaring back … Climate denialism is part of something much broader and scarier on the right. The core idea is most clearly expressed by Rush Limbaugh:
We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. … The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.
The right’s project over the last 30 years has been to dismantle the post-war liberal consensus by undermining trust in society’s leading institutions.
The decline in trust in institutions has generated fear and uncertainty, to which people generally respond by placing their trust in protective authorities. And some subset of people respond with tribalism, nationalism, and xenophobia. The right stokes and exploits modern anxiety relentlessly, but that’s not all they do. They also offer a space to huddle in safety among the like-minded. The conservative movement in America has created a self-contained, hermetically sealed epistemological reality — a closed-loop system of cable news, talk radio, and email forwards — designed not just as a source of alternative facts but as an identity. That’s why conservatives catch hell when they’re skeptical of climate skepticism. They’re messing with tribal cohesion and morale.
It’s a species of theater, repeated so often people have become inured, but if you take it seriously it’s an extraordinary charge. For one thing, if it’s true that the world’s scientists are capable of deception and collusion on this scale, a lot more than climate change is in doubt. These same institutions have told us what we know about health and disease, species and ecosystems, energy and biochemistry. If they are corrupt, we have to consider whether any of the knowledge they’ve generated is trustworthy. We could be operating our medical facilities, economies, and technologies on faulty theories. We might not know anything!
As I wrote in a previous post, the frightening implications of denialism are a breakdown of trust in our basic institutions, an ideological war against facts and science and a kaleidoscopic skewing of national priorities. Apparently Dick Cheney is happy about that:
Former Vice President Dick Cheney has to be smiling. With one exception, none of the Republicans running for the Senate — including the 20 or so with a serious chance of winning — accept the scientific consensus that humans are largely responsible for global warming. The candidates are not simply rejecting solutions, like putting a price on carbon, though these, too, are demonized. They are re-running the strategy of denial perfected by Mr. Cheney a decade ago, repudiating years of peer-reviewed findings about global warming and creating an alternative reality in which climate change is a hoax or conspiracy.
For a better sense of what the GOP wants, here’s a devastating New York Times piece titled The Right’s Environmental Wish List:
1. Put oil and natural gas leasing on the Outer Continental shelf on a fast track, holding lease sales every nine months and making them dependent on commercial expressions of interest (rather than, say, ecosystem requirements) to determine what parcels should be leased. Ensure that a year after the bill becomes law, there will be three lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and one off the coast of Virginia.
2. Open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to an “environmentally sound program for the exploration, development and production of the oil and gas resources of the Coastal Plain.” A generation of environmentalists have fought against this outcome, pitting themselves against a dogged but ultimately failed efforts of Ted Stevens, the late Alaska senator. Senator Stevens’s political heirs would like to make his dream come true.
3. Expedite lease sales for companies seeking to extract oil and natural gas from complex geologic formations like oil shale and tar sands in the West.
4. Set a nine-month deadline for the environmental review of any federal action like such leasing. Missed deadlines mean that the action is deemed acceptable — “of no significant impact,” in bureaucratic terms — and final.
5. Prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from classifying carbon dioxide or methane from agricultural activities — like manure-waste ponds filled by livestock in confined feedlots — as a pollutant. No state (are you listening, California?) could get federal permission to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from passenger vehicles.
6. Allow state governors to declare emergencies, which, once declared, require federal officials to ignore the provisions of the Endangered Species Act when dealing with the emergency. Examples given involve “flood control” and “water supply.” The latter was a major issue in California’s agricultural sector during recent years of drought, when supplies of fresh water for agriculture were curbed while supplies of water for endangered fish were preserved.
7. Allow mountaintop removal mining to proceed at Spruce Mine in Logan County, W. Va. It had been blocked by a decision by water regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency who were concerned about filling local stream beds with what miners call “overburden” and others call tons of soil and debris.
8. Reinstate the oil and gas leases in Utah that were purchased in the last years of George W. Bush’s administration. One of the Obama administration’s first acts was to rescind them.
9. In California’s dry central valley, ensure that no federal scientific report — the term of art is “biological opinion” — requiring water for endangered fish be allowed to interfere with farmers’ rights to their historical maximum allocations.
10. Expedite approval of construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the United States. (Nebraska’s congressional delegation just asked for the opposite, a delay, to ensure they have time to examine the pipeline’s potential for contaminating the huge Ogallala Aquifer as the pipeline crosses it in Nebraska.)
11. Give Shell oil a long-delayed license to drill for oil in the Beaufort Sea above Alaska.
12. Prohibit federal agencies from paying legal fees to environmental groups that prevail in lawsuits challenging the government’s environmental stewardship if the result of their actions “prevents, terminates or reduces” access to energy, minerals, timber, land for grazing and water for farming, or “eliminates or prevents one or more jobs.”
Now contrast that list with the stark reality we’re facing:
Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.
The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially “dangerous climate change” – is likely to be just “a nice Utopia”, according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions.
Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel – a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009, according to estimates from the IEA regarded as the gold standard for emissions data.
“I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions,” Birol told the Guardian. “It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”
Professor Lord Stern of the London School of Economics, the author of the influential Stern Report into the economics of climate change for the Treasury in 2006, warned that if the pattern continued, the results would be dire. “These figures indicate that [emissions] are now close to being back on a ‘business as usual’ path. According to the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's] projections, such a path … would mean around a 50% chance of a rise in global average temperature of more than 4C by 2100,” he said.
Newsweek warns of things to come:
Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century. Worldwide, the litany of weather’s extremes has reached biblical proportions. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000 and left large swaths of each country under water. A months-long drought in China has devastated millions of acres of farmland. And the temperature keeps rising: 2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began.
From these and other extreme-weather events, one lesson is sinking in with terrifying certainty. The stable climate of the last 12,000 years is gone. Which means you haven’t seen anything yet. And we are not prepared.
What’s demoralizing about the climate debate is that President Obama and Democratic leaders have squandered a unique opportunity. Anti-environmentalism is the GOP’s Achilles’ heel, since it has no basis in rationality and imperils humanity’s future:
Of all the wrongheaded ideas proudly trumpeted by America’s right, anti-environmentalism occupies a unique position: it is at once the most devoid of a rational or moral foundation and the most dangerous. It is selfish, crass, illogical, willfully blind, a denial of the undeniable reality that humans are pillaging irreplaceable natural resources and spewing filth into the air and water and soil at unsustainable rates.
Conservatives go on about “unsettled science,” as though we were engaging in a hypothetical legal exercise about the merits of reasonable doubt. In fact, this is our only planet. It’s the only place we can survive. We can’t afford to take chances. We can’t afford to do anything less than everything in our power to rectify the problem. We have no choice but to be alarmists — there’s no second chance. We get it wrong and we’ve doomed our children and their children. … How selfish can someone be to deny what they see with their own eyes: car fumes, bus fumes, truck fumes, factory fumes, chemical waste, human waste, toxins coursing through our waterways, in our food, filth we create in immense quantities turning our planet into a garbage dump.
If anything, we should be outdoing one another trying to address the issue, not smugly questioning the need for action under the guise that the science is imperfect. Reversing the damage we’re doing to the earth should be a priority for every citizen. Instead, environmentalism is treated like an annoyance that the media will occasionally poll about and that we bring to the fore once every April.
Am I being hyperbolic? It depends on how big you think the stakes are. For me, it’s about my daughter’s future. The air she breathes. The food she eats. The atmosphere that sustains her. Frankly, I hope global warming science is faulty. But even if it’s a 50-50 chance, how on earth can I dismiss the threat? How can I be so glib, so righteous? How can I live on this precious planet, floating in the middle of nowhere, knowing there’s nowhere else for my fellow living beings to go, and risk ruining it? What does it cost me to be vigilant, to care for my home, to be as clean and responsible as I can possibly be, to heed warnings, to live with respect and within sustainable means?
Democrats should hammer the GOP on the environment, pounding them on their irresponsibility, accusing them of endangering our children. The Gulf spill should have been a turning point, a powerful revival of the environmental movement. Instead, in a low point for the Obama presidency, the White House and Democratic leaders worked with BP to bury the story, believing it would be a drag on Democrats’ electoral prospects in the 2010 midterms. The Gulf calamity wasn’t something to run away from but something to use as an example of the recklessness of the right’s embrace of ignorance:
BP and several other big European companies are funding the midterm election campaigns of Tea Party favorites who deny the existence of global warming or oppose Barack Obama’s energy agenda, the Guardian has learned. An analysis of campaign finance by Climate Action Network Europe (Cane) found nearly 80% of campaign donations from a number of major European firms were directed towards senators who blocked action on climate change. These included incumbents who have been embraced by the Tea Party such as Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, and the notorious climate change denier James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma.
President Obama’s sorry record on climate change isn’t going unnoticed. Al Gore is speaking out and he isn’t mincing words:
President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change. After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding. After the House passed cap and trade, he did little to make passage in the Senate a priority. Senate advocates — including one Republican — felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return. He has also called for a massive expansion of oil drilling in the United States, apparently in an effort to defuse criticism from those who argue speciously that “drill, baby, drill” is the answer to our growing dependence on foreign oil.
The failure to pass legislation to limit global-warming pollution ensured that the much-anticipated Copenhagen summit on a global treaty in 2009 would also end in failure. The president showed courage in attending the summit and securing a rhetorical agreement to prevent a complete collapse of the international process, but that’s all it was — a rhetorical agreement. During the final years of the Bush-Cheney administration, the rest of the world was waiting for a new president who would aggressively tackle the climate crisis — and when it became clear that there would be no real change from the Bush era, the agenda at Copenhagen changed from “How do we complete this historic breakthrough?” to “How can we paper over this embarrassing disappointment?”
Some concluded from the failure in Copenhagen that it was time to give up on the entire U.N.-sponsored process for seeking an international agreement to reduce both global-warming pollution and deforestation. Ultimately, however, the only way to address the climate crisis will be with a global agreement that in one way or another puts a price on carbon. And whatever approach is eventually chosen, the U.S. simply must provide leadership by changing our own policy.
Yet without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is “the power to persuade.” Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.
Here is the core of it: we are destroying the climate balance that is essential to the survival of our civilization. This is not a distant or abstract threat; it is happening now. The United States is the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the only person who can rally the United States.