Wed, Apr

The Republicans Should Avoid Talking about Global Warming


GELFAND’S WORLD--Think of it as a much bigger, real-life version of the movie Jaws. The town sheriff and the nerdy biologist want to warn the people about the menace, but the town fathers don't want to hurt business. 

"Maybe it's not that bad." 

"But it's a hungry, predatory beast that has already killed!" 

"Well, maybe it will go away." 

For those of a scientific frame of mind, global warming is the beast. It's the worst risk we face. Until giant bug-eyed monsters from outer space or land sharks invade us, or until we get into a nuclear war, global warming is our supreme risk. Nothing else comes close in terms of the worldwide catastrophic effects likely to occur. That's not only to us humans, but also to pretty much every other life form on the planet. 

What's the tie-in to the presidential conventions we will be having? In a word, global warming is potentially still at the stage where we humans can have some effect on the eventual outcome. At least I hope we are still at that stage. But we need to make a mutual decision as a species that we will do our best to prevent the worst. And that's where the politics of this democracy come in. Choices have to be made, and unfortunately, the choice-making process has been perverted. 

The choice: To decrease the slope of our descent into a dramatically worsened world, we have to make changes, beginning with our profligate spending of fossil fuels. At some point, we will also have to come to grips with our own population explosion, the root of our other problems. At another point we may choose to deal with ancillary problems such as the number of cattle we raise. These are, every one of them, difficult problems and each linked to solutions that will be painful to somebody. 

These next two weeks, we will observe the beginnings of the decision-making process. This week, the Republicans will engage in the first of two propaganda celebrations. Then the Democrats get to do their own rites. Should any of the speakers at either convention bring up the issue of global warming, we can expect diametrically opposed positions. It's as if the orbit of the earth around the sun were still in question, the way the two parties differ on this fundamental question. 

For some reason, the leaders of the Republican Party have bought into the mythology that global warming doesn't exist, or if it does exist then it is the result of natural changes, or that if it does exist and humans are partly to blame, then it's too late and too expensive to do anything about it. It's not unlike those arguments about gun control in which the pro-gun side wants to talk about anything but the guns themselves. In the case of global warming, the climate change denialists will talk about the inherent fallibility of scientific data, or raise accusations about the motives of climate scientists, or look desperately for (and even find) a couple of scientists who remain skeptical. But the overall weight of the evidence and the conclusion it implies aren't popular topics in Republican debate. 

The problem for climate change denialists is that the scientific data are getting to be pretty close to overwhelming. There is no disputing the fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide has been going up steadily, and there is no disputing the fact that carbon dioxide has an absorbance and emission spectrum that helps our atmosphere to retain heat. That's why we use terms like greenhouse effect. The only remaining part of the argument is whether the plants and animals of planet earth will be incredibly lucky, at least for a while. 

At the moment, the official Republican line is that global warming is a hoax. Donald Trump has been going around reciting that position, for example in an interview with the editorial board of the Washington Post.  "I'm not a big believer in man-made climate change." 

Notice the choice of words: believer 

This should be a clue to the overall thought process that goes into such statements. The validity of a physical change affecting the entire surface of planet Earth is treated as if you can decide Yes or No based on your personal political obsessions. The tens of thousands of measurements made by orbiting spacecraft, the historical record found in tree rings and glacial cores, none of these matter if you can force yourself to remain in a strong enough state of denial. It's see no science, hear no science, speak no science. 

The Republicans have so far managed to treat global warming not so much as a scientific controversy, but as a political game that it is possible to win. 

The week after next, the Democrats will be holding their own convention. The question for mankind isn't whether the convention treats Bernie Sanders kindly, but whether the Democrats will be serious enough about global warming to even mention it. And if they mention it, will they make a serious case for doing serious things? 

The Clinton campaign treats global warming as a serious threat. My concern is Clinton's need to marry the concept of global warming to some oh-so standard political cliche mongering. Making America the world's clean energy superpower and meeting the climate challenge. Hear me out, Hillary: It's the crashing of major ecosystems, the extinction of tens of thousands of species, and a future of misery for much of the world's human population if we don't get going. It's not like adjusting the dollar exchange rate to improve our import/export ration by a couple of percent, or moving farm price supports up a few percent to save Illinois farmers from losing money on next year's crop. 

But the Democratic Party's argument is phrased in terms of creating jobs, not saving the world. 

I can understand the idea of sugar coating the medicine a bit, as long as we can agree that at some point, we may have to agree that humans need to make some sacrifices in order to save the world. But right now, the Clinton website is basically about the sugar coating, and not much about either the medicine or the problem it is supposed to treat. 

Still, the conversion of the American economy to solar power is a useful thing, and potentially decisive in stemming global warming if the rest of the world does the same thing. 

By the way, we (and the rest of the world) will probably be better off if Republican convention speakers avoid the topic of global warming. The reasoning behind this statement may seem strained, but the logic works: Right now, Republicans with a bit of intelligence and education have to know that they are on the wrong side of science on the question. They've been gradually shifting their position from "there is no global warming" to the slightly softened "it's getting warm, but we can still drive our cars." They're not quite ready to move even further, to "This is a major emergency, albeit a slowly forming one, and we have to do what it takes, even if it costs." 

That would be a decisive statement. It's too bad that the Republicans aren't decisive on global warming the way they pretend to be decisive on middle east wars. But they just aren't there yet. So it's better if they say nothing, because in saying nothing, there is less distance they have to back-peddle when the time comes. 

Notice that the Democratic Party position isn't a decisive statement that we need to save the world, whatever the price. It's more like a promise that the next economic stimulus package will include solar installations, and not just new highways and bridges.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]) 



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