By Stacey Warde.
In the United States, climate change has become one of the most politically volatile issues of our day, pitting business and political interests against those that claim humans have dangerously altered our planet’s biosphere, threatening our very survival, potentially destroying life as we know it.
Amid ominous signs of radical changes in weather—supercharged tornados, hurricanes, floods, and extended droughts, just to name a few—debate around the issue has itself also become supercharged, leaving little room for informed discussion.
More often, when the subject comes up for consideration in our public discourse, parties tend to divide themselves into extremes.
One extreme, for example, claims that climate change is a hoax while the other extreme argues that humans have irreparably damaged the planet, and now natural catastrophes never before seen have begun crashing down upon us.
One of the most vocal critics of climate change is Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who is the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. In a July 28, 2003, floor speech before the Senate, Inhofe claimed that the threat of catastrophic global warming was “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
The resulting public outcry, Inhofe said later, proved that indeed environmentalists who claim the inevitability of global warming were basing their views more as an “article of religious faith” rather than as sound scientific reasoning.
Furthermore, Inhofe said correctly, scientists who challenge the tenets of global warming “are attacked, sometimes personally, for blindly ignoring the so-called ‘scientific consensus.’”
On the other side, respected scientists such as Robert Ballard, a professor of oceanography and explorer of the Titanic, argue that we’ve gone past the point of no return: “If you want to know the truth: it’s too late. All the ice is going to melt. There’s a lag and it’s already in the system.
“Sometimes I see this tombstone that says, ‘The human race came and went, but it was politically correct,’” he said.
We can’t seem to find the middle ground to proceed, framing a debate that will protect business and economic interests while also lessening our impacts on the environment. [See Environmental Defense Fund’s “We believe economic prosperity and environmental stewardship go hand-in-hand.”]
The debate on global climate change, in fact, often approaches the absurd, especially when so many people engaged in the discussion have already made up their minds without really reviewing the evidence.
In fact, one of the more telling and less reported facts about the debate is the scientific literacy, or lack thereof, of individuals who have taken a position on the subject. The lack of scientific literacy is a problem on both sides of the debate, with individuals basing their positions more on personal preferences, political alliances, hunches (or, as Inhofe put it, “religious faith”), rather than on actual review of the scientific data.
The Political Game
The real hoax, if there is one, however, may be in the way we have let the mass media frame the debate by making it into a battle between political parties instead of turning it into an opportunity to educate and inform.
If probed, ask yourself, how much do I really know about climate change? Where did I get my information? What science have I depended upon for my position on climate change? More likely, we’ve relied upon news that likes to make a fetish out of conflict rather build an informed and fresh perspective on events in the world.
In the emerging era of digital information overload, it gets more challenging to sift fact from fiction, and nowhere is this more telling than on the subject of global climate change. It also gets more difficult to develop an informed rather than impassioned opinion on the topic. Polarization and paralysis take hold. Nothing gets done, only talking heads.
In his Oct. 4 Time magazine column, “Going Green,” for example, blogger Bryan Walsh took to task GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry for this recent comment to New Hampshire voters: “I don’t believe man-made global warming is settled in science enough.”
In the article, titled “Who’s Bankrolling the Climate-Change Deniers?”, Walsh next points out that in 2007-2008 nearly 50 percent of Republicans polled agreed that the effects of global warming were already being felt; 70 percent of liberals and Democrats agreed. In 2010, less than 30 percent of Republicans agreed; the figure for liberals and Democrats remained the same.
“That’s deeply troubling,” Walsh went on. “It’s one thing when people disagree on the effectiveness of different approaches to fix a problem; it’s worse when they refuse even to believe that a problem exists — despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that says it does. One of America’s major political parties has, in effect, adopted denial as policy. How did we get here?”
How did we get here? Partly, because no one’s listening, and it’s hard to create well-reasoned and effective policy when people are screaming at each other.
Perry didn’t say a problem doesn’t exist; he said the science isn’t settled enough. So why not, as Perry and other climate change skeptics request, review the data more closely?
Believers seem to assume, for example, that no sensible scientist, at least none who aren’t part of the lunatic fringe or funded by the fossil fuel industry, would dare challenge the scientific data that suggests alarming trends in global temperatures and changes in weather patterns.
It’s one thing to deny climate change, the way the media likes to put it, and an entirely different thing to challenge the data, to question the consensus. And there’s plenty of room for debate in the scientific community.
The argument, of course, is that those who question the science advocating global warming trends are mere shills for the fossil fuel industry, which is unwilling to lose profits by re-tooling and shifting its focus to more sustainable energy uses. That, also, is partly true.
But not every politician or scientist who challenges the data is necessarily denying that climate change or global warming is a concern.
Basically, the debate can be broken down into two camps: Climate Change Believers and Climate Change Challengers. Both sides seem to want to frame the debate so that there is no middle ground, only fruitless attempts to cancel each other out.
For one example of how the middle ground gets lost in extremes, note how quickly a Climate Change Believer will label anyone who doesn’t agree with the “scientific consensus” on climate change as a Climate Change Denier.
Words tell all. If you’re a labeled denier then, as Inhofe claims, you must be a heretic or an imbecile, and thus there’s no room or opportunity for you to make a vigorous and studied challenge to the consensus. Of course, there are some who, against the evidence and apparent sound reason, deny any possibility that climate change is a factor.
Indeed, there is a third group, the Climate Change Deniers, which seems to get all of the attention when it comes to not only discussing the issue of climate change but also in forming policies that regulate industry guilty of adding daily tons of carbons into the atmosphere.
The believers seem to have the upper hand at this stage but that appears to be changing. The challengers and deniers are fast picking up the pace, and that worries a lot of people. Too bad, because there’s plenty of wiggle room for debate, if only the involved parties would square off and really evaluate the data with dispassionate, scientific skill.
Unfortunately, the “science” appears to get lost in the name calling. §
Next time, we’ll look more closely at the discussion of global climate change within the scientific community, and how scientific literacy has helped shaped the public discourse.
Stacey Warde writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he tends a two-acre container farm of blueberries not far from scenic coastal Highway 1. He has received numerous awards for his writing and is a former publisher of the literary magazine, The Rogue Voice.
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