Sunday, January 20, 2013

Teabags Of Denial

Here's my latest Sunday column in our local newspaper:
Hot off the presses, there’s a new report on the science and effects of climate change. ( As a physician I like to consider myself a scientist, but, compared to my niece, a PhD researcher at NYU (until Hurricane Sandy destroyed the labs there), I know I’m really not. Still, I think I understand how science works: It observes, investigates, self-corrects with new information. It invites criticism, demands proof. It’s unemotional, neutral.

Which is why I can’t understand how denial of human-caused climate change divides exclusively along party lines. Why should it be that Democrats accept it and today’s Republicans consider it a hoax? Where’s the politics in science? If folks are going to reject climate change (or, for that matter, the age of the earth, or evolution) they shouldn’t take antibiotics, fly in airplanes, or use electricity. To me, you can’t be selective about science. And yet, puzzlingly, they are.

Science measures stuff. It makes predictions and tests whether they’re correct. Finding carbon dioxide levels rising in the atmosphere, scientists seek the sources, predict and investigate the consequences. Greenhouse effects. Ice caps melting, and, as the rate of melting exposes more heat-absorbing terrain, even faster melting. Seas rising. Crazy weather, like droughts and floods, more and stronger hurricanes and tornados. It’s all happening.

Not mentioned as much as warming is acidification of the ocean. Because of increased levels of dissolved, human-produced, atmospheric carbon dioxide, that’s happening, too, and the results are devastating. Off Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is already half dead and gone. Effects are becoming evident right here in Puget Sound: Mussels aren’t clinging to rocks as well; shells of clams and oysters are dissolving; urchin larvae becoming misshapen, squid metabolism slowing down, barnacles dying off. More troubling, zooplankton, the first link in the food chain, are disappearing. That has huge upstream effects.

In the shadows of the Olympics and Cascades, although we keep breaking records, it hasn’t yet gotten really hot. Elsewhere, though, droughts are getting steadily worse in the midst of unprecedented heat waves. The past year, once again, was the hottest on record. And migration patterns are changing. As a kid I never saw pelicans in these parts; now, they’re chugging up the Oregon coast like Hells’ Angels with feathers. It’s impossible to make a credible argument that nothing is going on; yet, almost exclusively in the US, and limited to people in today’s Republican Party, people try: Elected people, like Gohmert, Broun, Coburn, McCain, and too many more to list; and the ones who vote for them. And, it goes without saying, Fox “news.”

Under the weight of the evidence, some deniers acknowledge changes, but refuse to admit they’re man-made. Sunspots, they argue, wrongly. In the seventies, they remind us, silly scientists were predicting another ice age. But if you look into it, only about ten percent were predicting that back then, some took no stance, and over sixty-percent predicted warming. Funny how many “facts” you hear from pundits (the cooling thing has been a favorite of George Will), turn out to be – what shall we call it? – hot air. Speaking of which, remember the Foxified conniption over those climate scientists’ emails? It’s been looked into, thoroughly. There was neither hanky nor panky involving results. 

Climate change denial fits with what I find so mystifying about today’s Republican party. They weren’t always this refractory to reality, and conservatism wasn’t always equated with denialism. Once, they proudly considered themselves the fact-based party. Now, like Sarah Palin and so many in Congress, they openly mock the very idea of expertise, literally denouncing science as the work of the devil. Every Republican on the House Energy Committee voted that the earth is not warming, by any cause. What happened?

I’ll never understand it. Maybe it’s that solutions are complicated and difficult, and those people only like simple and easy. You can’t fix climate change with a tax cut. You can’t respond to it, as George Bush asked of us after 9/11, by going shopping. Man-made climate change is going to be really difficult, and costly, to reverse; recent studies suggest it’ll become impossible if we wait much longer. So, to a political party with only one response to all problems, it simply doesn’t exist. Is that it?

Where did the great Republican thinkers go; and are they ever coming back?
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