Tell it like it is

Whether denial of climate science was what the Americans thought they were voting for when they cast their ballots for many of the Republican candidates in the mid-term election, or whether they had other things on their mind, the end result is that the US now has an apparent majority of legislators who flatly deny climate change, or, if they don’t go that far, certainly deny the need to address it. It’s an extraordinary spectacle. The science is utterly clear, more so by the day. But the clearer it gets the more sure the denial becomes in that sadly mixed-up country. Their own government scientific institutions are to the forefront in the reporting of climate change.  Their National Academies of Science produce regular accessible reports affirming the science and urging appropriate responses. Their universities provide a large number of scientists working productively on many aspects of the issue. Yet a substantial sector of their politicians are now confidently announcing that they don’t believe it’s happening. Suzanne Goldberg in the Guardian reports an investigation by a website run by the Centre for American Progress think tank which found 50% of the more than 100 Republican newcomers deny the existence of man-made climate change. An overwhelming majority, 86%, oppose legislation that would raise taxes on polluting industries.


“Climate is gone,” was Karl Rove’s comforting message to the attendees of a shale-gas conference in Philadelphia, Brad Johnson reports. Rove told them that the incoming Republican House of Representatives “sure as heck” won’t pass legislation to limit greenhouse pollution from fossil fuels.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Sunday Bracken Hendricks (pictured) put his finger on the radical nature of the conservatism which informs the Republican denial of climate science. It is conservatism at odds with itself.

“…far from being conservative, the Republican stance on global warming shows a stunning appetite for risk.

“…they are recklessly betting the farm on a single, best-case scenario: That the scientific consensus about global warming will turn out to be wrong. This is bad risk management and an irresponsible way to run anything, whether a business, an economy or a planet.”

It’s a very high risk, as he reminds readers:

“The best science available suggests that without taking action to fundamentally change how we produce and use energy, we could see temperatures rise 9 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit over much of the United States by 2090. These estimates have sometimes been called high-end predictions, but the corresponding low-end forecasts assume we will rally as a country to shift course. That hasn’t happened, so the worst case must become our best guess.”

The irony, he points out, is that the result would be not the rolled-back government that Republicans are currently espousing but a greatly expanded role for government:

“With temperature increases in this range, studies predict a permanent drought throughout the Southwest, much like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but this time stretching from Kansas to California. If you hate bailouts or want to end farm subsidies, this is a problem. Rising ocean acidity, meanwhile, will bring collapsing fisheries, catch restrictions – and unemployment checks. And rising sea levels will mean big bills as cash-strapped cities set about rebuilding infrastructure and repairing storm damage. With Americans in pain, the government will have to respond. And who will shoulder these new burdens? Future taxpayers.”

The sheer recklessness of denying climate change or the need for action to address it is breathtaking. It’s unfathomable considered alongside the caution with which the US guards itself against terrorism, for example.  It’s so deeply irrational that one wonders if anything can shift it. Yet the deniers won enough of the votes. Small wonder that Stephen Schneider feared democracy couldn’t cope with the confusion in which the issue of climate change has been wrapped.

The Administration, which doesn’t deny climate science, appears to have lost its nerve or not know how to speak to the public about the matter. However there are encouraging indications that American scientists are ready to enter the bruising public arena to challenge the confident denial that is echoing in political circles. The LA Times reports today that there is rising support  among climate scientists to establish a broad campaign to push back against the congressional conservatives who have vowed to kill regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

“The still-evolving efforts reveal a shift among climate scientists, many of whom have traditionally stayed out of politics and avoided the news media. Many now say they are willing to go toe-to-toe with their critics…”

The American Geophysical Union plans to announce today that 700 researchers have agreed to speak out on the issue.

Another announced pushback intention comes from John Abraham of St Thomas University in Minnesota whom Hot Topic readers will recall received enormous support here when attacked by Christopher Monckton. He is pulling together a “Climate Rapid Response Team,” which includes scientists prepared to go before what they consider potentially hostile audiences on conservative talk-radio and television shows.

Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York explains:

“This group feels strongly that science and politics can’t be divorced and that we need to take bold measures to not only communicate science but also to aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists.

“We are taking the fight to them because we are … tired of taking the hits. The notion that truth will prevail is not working. The truth has been out there for the past two decades, and nothing has changed.”

If such developments take place on a large enough scale they could be very important. The public would better see just how strong the consensus is amongst those scientists who actually work on the issue. They would also realise the alarm that many of the scientists feel as emissions continue to rise. It’s all too easy for politicians to isolate distinguished figures like James Hansen and portray them as some kind of maverick, but phalanxes of scientists ready to speak out publicly would be a different matter. At least it would make it absolutely clear to the public that if they run with their denialist politicians on this issue they are rejecting mainstream science and exposing themselves to what the science sees as grave risks. I’m not sure that they as yet realise that is what they’re doing.

[Aaron Neville]

21 thoughts on “Tell it like it is”

  1. The AGU announcement is a positive step. Given the acrimonious nature of the issue in the USA I do hope the scientists can leave a pathway for most of these Republican politicians to honourably back away from their poorly thought-out position.

  2. I do hope the scientists can leave a pathway for most of these Republican politicians to honourably back away from their poorly thought-out position
    Yes, one of the dangers arising from increasing poliarisation is that thoughtful Republicans who are open to the science nonetheless perceive the political danger of “flip flopping” on this issue as too high.

  3. “…the US now has an apparent majority of legislators who flatly deny climate change”
    Please post evidence of any legislator who denies that climate changes.

    1. “…. just how strong the consensus is amongst those scientists who actually work on the issue”
      The pro-AGW scientists will be very, very worried about thier lucrative research grants and Government funding. I wonder if these concerns have anything to do with the plan for 700 of them to speak out?
      What about the +70,000 scientists who are sceptical of the exaggerated climate predictions and fermongery? …. “we could see temperatures rise 9 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit over much of the United States by 2090″…
      My guess is that the elected politicians represent them.

          1. Ah, Lank, I asked you a question (indeed, two) here only a few days ago. Any response?

            Please, after all ‘enquiring minds want to know’.
            (appropriately, the source responsible for popularising that catch phrase was…

      1. Byron, Steve is playing semantics. It’s one of the missiles he uses on his lightning raids. He knows perfectly well anthropogenic is understood in the context.

        1. Actually it is “Catastrophic Anthropogenic” CC that you are selling. Please say what you actually mean. Otherwise be prepared to have your lack of honesty pointed out.
          “each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective, and being honest”.–Stephen H. Schneider

  4. Good post, Bryan. I’m not sure if we can hang the consequences of continued bad climate policy on the U.S. Electorate. I think this Election cycle is more of a backlash against President Obama, who promised “Hope”, and “Change you can believe in”. As these two ideals have faded in the harsh light of an obstructionist Minority in their Senate, Democratic voters lost that spark of inspiration which brought them out in 2008, and they stayed away on Election day. Obama needs to reconnect with young voters, who will after all be the ones left to live with Climate change.

  5. Sharing a random thought that I had after reading this:

    Climate change is a classic tragedy of the commons (if I remember that particular dilemma correctly). If you are a denier of the science, there is no personal impact for being wrong: everyone suffers equally (well ok, the poor more than the rich). But if you believe the science, there’s no incentive to reduce your consumption of the resource when it will just be used by someone else. You should use that for your own advantage.

    In lieu of everyone agreeing the planet is finite, and what it’s limits are and how they should be enforced, we need to find a way to move forward where people can continue to disagree. It almost seems like we need a way to let both camps put their money where their mouths are.

    Thought: Carbon Tax and Place Your Bets

    So what if we instituted some kind of carbon tax, but instead of returning that as a dividend to people at the end of each year (my favoured idea), we put that dividend into named accounts in two investment funds. Kind of like KiwiSaver crossed with Cullen fund.

    People choose which fund they invest in. Putting your money into one of the funds is like placing a bet that climate change is not real, putting it into the other is like placing a bet it is real. Some set of metrics are defined up front (e.g. certain sea level rise, or temperature increase, in relation to amounts of GHG in the atmosphere)**. In 50 years time (or something) the funds are closed. Those who bet right, get paid out. Those who bet wrong don’t, and the money from the losing fund is given to the government to spend. Therefore everyone benefits from the losing fund, either it is used to build new infrastructure everyone can use (if climate change isn’t real), or it is used to repair and mitigate the damage of climate change (if real). But the backers of the winning fund benefit will more because they also get all of their carbon taxes back plus interest.

    People can change which fund their future dividends go into at any time. Actually perhaps that needs to be only once every five years or similar, just to put the right timeframe/consequences on the decision.

    ** Ok that part would lead to much debate and could ruin the whole thing if skewed by ideology.

    A possible enhancement is to somehow track peoples total carbon tax, and instead of giving them a dividend they get to invest all of their carbon tax. This would mean that a denier who likes to emit more can’t complain that they didn’t get their fair share of the tax back to invest in their denier fund. Although that also perversely means that a large emitter who is science savvy could invest in the believer fund, and as such effectively nullify the carbon tax they pay when climate change becomes indisputably real.

    I guess there’s also an ethical issue here that you’re effectively taxing people for being ignorant.

    1. Great idea. Here is a possible modification. First, establish a global change index (GCI), a composite index of changes in global temperaure, sea-level rise, ocean acidity, etc. and track over time. (This would be the difficult part.) At payment time, each person could direct their “carbon tax” for the year into the “accept” or “reject” global change fund. At the end of the year, there would be a dividend paid from one fund to contributors to the other on the basis of the change in the GCI.

      Are the ethics of taxing the ignorant any different from letting them vote?

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