Global Warming Deniers

Global Warming Deniers

Let me see if I understand this correctly: global warming is a lie because it’s not caused by man, or global warming is a lie because it can never happen at all, or global warming is a lie because a worldwide cadre of scientists want grants in a bid to enforce socialism and a U.N. dominated body to rule us all. At the behest of Al Gore, of course.

If you think I’m making this up, then you haven't listened to the caterwauling of right-wing radio talk shows.

Ever since Barack Obama won the presidential contest, I’ve heard a sharp uptake on decrying global warming from talk radio, and read more about it on right-of-center Web sites. (In fact, one headline stated that 2008 was the year global warming was disproved.) It’s gotten so shrill and irrational that I am starting to believe that conservatism and the Republican party have decided that screaming about global warming should be the core of their ideology since just about everything else hasn’t worked. To whit: Obama is a Muslim, he’s not a real American citizen, he’s a Marxist in camouflage with radical friends and that he’s ultraliberal. With just about every wave of attack, nothing seems to stick. Either nobody cared about his secret socialist plans or they were all too seduced by his rhetoric to see the trickery.

So, when all the avenues of attack prove ineffective, what issues are left? Well, abortion and homosexuals are perennial favorites, but they just seem too passé right now. With the war in Iraq, the right decided that the most important thing to scream was about how the surge strategy worked, but again, this didn’t seem to frighten too many people into the warnings about Obama’s perceived desire to “raise the white flag of surrender.” In fact, the war in Iraq was not at the top of voters’ concerns, and it drove the right-wing into further paroxysms of anger.

But one issue that seems to be sufficiently galvanizing is global warming. For talk radio, this issue is the new cause célèbre: it’s all a lie, it’s just a bunch of “Marxist environmentalists” run amok who want to frighten people into thinking the world is about to end. Read any article in a major newspaper like the New York Times or the Washington Post, and you’ll find scores of reader comments that seem to be written with the same talking points in mind: global warming is a hoax.

What comes to the fore, however, with all this crying over global warming is the dearth of knowledge regarding the scientific process. You see, for the right wing and their millions of followers, if scientists disagree about Topic X, it shows that Topic X is an outright fabrication. In reality, if you’ve ever been to a gathering of scientists either at a conference or a bar, you quickly realize that these folks fight over just about everything. Scientists, while certainly not infallible despite what they can believe about themselves, are an argumentative bunch and consensus is reached over a long period of time. Even then, the interpretation of data is always subject to further refinement. At its most basic, the scientific process is a crucible where the dross is burned away until you are left with a suitable and verifiable explanation for what is observed in the real world. This is then called a fact.

Now, for the right wing and their abhorrence of facts that get in the way of their ideology, this is all just bunk. And not ordinary bunk: it has to be qualified as Marxist, socialist, communist and whacko bunk. And when scientists disagree, this is supposed to be proof that whatever they are talking about is really not true at all because as everyone knows, you have to have 100% consensus or it’s a no-go. (The zero-sum game approach.) I suspect this is the origin of the “teach the controversy” nonsense that has bamboozled people into believing that disagreement among scientists is proof of a conspiracy to hush-up those who won't follow orthodoxy.

It’s a disturbing ruse whose transparency should be obvious, but since most people are confused about science and the scientific process, it works brilliantly. So instead of understanding how climate data can be argued over but general consensus reached, we have a typical dichotomy: either global warming is real or it is not. And to muddy the waters even further, it seems many people believe that in order for global warming to be real, the effects have to be apparent right here, right now, otherwise it’s false. Most climate change analyses deal with long-term effects of unchecked anthropogenic carbon emissions, often telling us what the world risks becoming by the 22nd century. Of course, because that’s so far off and most people can’t think past next week, they dismiss global warming with even more vehemence, scoffing at the idea that a one or two foot rise in sea levels is a big deal, because they won’t be alive to see it.

When you buy life insurance, do you buy it to provide for your great-great-great-great grandchildren, or for your immediate family? Do you plan for the needs of the ones closest to you, hoping to impart to them to keep the family farm, or pass along the heirlooms that you inherited? Isn’t this because you can envision your family’s needs if you die, as it is relatively close in time? Similarly, what you provide in the here and now can effect those distant relatives (land, money) even if you’re not around to see it personally. In this interconnected world, the actions of the human community take on greater dimensions for future generations.

This is not to imply that scientists are always right and that we should blindly follow their recommendations, or throw obscene amounts of money their way with no questions asked. (In fact, one common complaint among global warming deniers is that scientists just want grant money, a thinking disorder that U.S. taxpayers have in believing the government takes money from their paychecks to fund projects for some brainiac’s childish amusement). But the questions we pose to these deniers are straightforward: if we live on a geologically active planet, does climate change never happen? If it does happen, does it matter if humans cause or contribute to it? It’s highly likely that this last question is the real reason so many deniers are religious in their zeal to decry global warming as a fraud: they don’t like their feelings hurt. If you couple this absurdity with a dislike for the scientific process and a severe lack of imagination, you have the perfect storm of factors that prevent planning for the future.

We need skepticism to keep federal spending in line, to weed out weak theories that lead us down the wrong track. We need critical minds to challenge scientists to show us the proof they say is all around us, and with much better image management than the media provides. (Alarmism makes great headlines but poor public understanding and policy.) But as a society, we need to start putting our personal prejudices aside when we get news we don’t want to hear, rather than marshaling flimsy arguments to deny climate change just because it offends our perception of ourselves as the center of creation.

Unfortunately for conservatives, global warming is emerging as a new red-meat issue to galvanize the base to fight against, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to push American innovation in tackling a problem that faces the entire world. That’s a pity, because their movement and philosophy (such as it is) risks becoming more and more reactionary rather than dynamic. Perhaps they need “change” more than they realize.