Sunday, September 25, 2011

Global warming in the culture war

Here's a very good article at ABC News about the history of global warming - and global warming denialism. Some excerpts:
[T]he headline on the 1975 report was bold: "Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?" And this article that coined the term may have marked the last time a mention of "global warming" didn't set off an instant outcry of angry denial.

In the paper, Columbia University geoscientist Wally Broecker calculated how much carbon dioxide would accumulate in the atmosphere in the coming 35 years, and how temperatures consequently would rise. His numbers have proven almost dead-on correct. Meanwhile, other powerful evidence poured in over those decades, showing the "greenhouse effect" is real and is happening. And yet resistance to the idea among many in the U.S. appears to have hardened.

What's going on?

"The desire to disbelieve deepens as the scale of the threat grows," concludes economist-ethicist Clive Hamilton.

He and others who track what they call "denialism" find that its nature is changing in America, last redoubt of climate naysayers. It has taken on a more partisan, ideological tone. Polls find a widening Republican-Democratic gap on climate. Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry even accuses climate scientists of lying for money. Global warming looms as a debatable question in yet another U.S. election campaign. ...

The basic physics of anthropogenic — manmade — global warming has been clear for more than a century, since researchers proved that carbon dioxide traps heat. Others later showed CO2 was building up in the atmosphere from the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels. Weather stations then filled in the rest: Temperatures were rising.

"As a physicist, putting CO2 into the air is good enough for me. It's the physics that convinces me," said veteran Cambridge University researcher Liz Morris. But she said work must go on to refine climate data and computer climate models, "to convince the deeply reluctant organizers of this world."

The reluctance to rein in carbon emissions revealed itself early on. ...

By 1988, NASA climatologist James Hansen could appear before a U.S. Senate committee and warn that global warming had begun, a dramatic announcement later confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a new, U.N.-sponsored network of hundreds of international scientists.

But when Hansen was called back to testify in 1989, the White House of President George H.W. Bush edited this government scientist's remarks to water down his conclusions, and Hansen declined to appear.

That was the year U.S. oil and coal interests formed the Global Climate Coalition to combat efforts to shift economies away from their products. Britain's Royal Society and other researchers later determined that oil giant Exxon disbursed millions of dollars annually to think tanks and a handful of supposed experts to sow doubt about the facts. ...

In fact, a document emerged years later showing that the industry coalition's own scientific team had quietly advised it that the basic science of global warming was indisputable. ...

In the face of years of scientific findings and growing impacts, the doubters persist. They ignore long-term trends and seize on insignificant year-to-year blips in data to claim all is well. They focus on minor mistakes in thousands of pages of peer-reviewed studies to claim all is wrong. And they carom from one explanation to another for today's warming Earth: jet contrails, sunspots, cosmic rays, natural cycles.

"Ninety-eight percent of the world's climate scientists say it's for real, and yet you still have deniers," observed former U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican who chaired the House's science committee. ...

The Australian scholar Hamilton sought to explain why in his 2010 book, "Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change."

In an interview, he said he found a "transformation" from the 1990s and its industry-financed campaign, to an America where climate denial "has now become a marker of cultural identity in the 'angry' parts of the United States."

"Climate denial has been incorporated in the broader movement of right-wing populism," he said, a movement that has "a visceral loathing of environmentalism." ...

Boehlert, the veteran Republican congressman, noted that "high-profile people with an 'R' after their name, like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, are saying it's all fiction. Pooh-poohing the science of climate change feeds into their basic narrative that all government is bad."

The quarterly study's authors, Aaron M. McCright of Michigan State University and Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State, suggested climate had joined abortion and other explosive, intractable issues as a mainstay of America's hardening left-right gap.

"The culture wars have thus taken on a new dimension," they wrote.

Scary stuff, huh? I left out the parts of this article which describe what's happening now, and why it's such a concern. I urge you to check it out for yourself.

In America, on the right, it's no longer science. It's culture war. Science is like gay marriage. Being against it is part of the right-wing's cultural identity.

Note that Big Oil was following the lead of Big Tobacco from decades ago. In both cases, sowing doubt about the science was just a way to keep short-term profits high. I remember, when I was a kid, wondering how anyone could believe the tobacco industry when they trotted out their tame scientists. But I guess it's easy to believe what you want to believe.

But it's even worse these days. These days, the Republican Party sees a political advantage in opposing science. Fox "News" pushes it as part of a deliberate campaign to elect Republicans. And this campaign against the "elites" fits in perfectly well with the GOP campaign to destroy our trust in our American institutions, too. As the article notes, it "feeds into their basic narrative that all government is bad."

I posted about this previously. Destroy Americans' faith in their own government and the party seen as "anti-government" wins by default. Destroy our trust in science and who are you going to believe then? The oil companies? The tobacco companies? Fox "News"? What, don't multinational corporations have your best interests at heart? In fact, if you can't believe science, you'll just believe whatever you want to believe - or what someone convinces you to believe for their own purposes.

Science never used to be partisan. Both political parties used to respect science, just as both political parties used to respect the separation of church and state. But as the Republican Party has rushed faster and faster to the extreme right, it's abandoned all that.

Why did that happen? Well, I've posted before about faith-based thinking, and I think it all ties together. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the GOP made a concerted effort to appeal to southern white racists. Politically, that was a huge success. The South went from being solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. Indeed, these days, there's no other part of the country so red.

But the South is also part of America's Bible Belt - indeed, the most faith-based part of our country. So sucking up to Christian fundamentalists must have seemed a natural fit. That, too, was a political success. The religious right was a great source of money and volunteers. But moderate conservatives started seeing the tail wag the dog.

The thing about a political party appealing to extremists is that extremists start to become more and more powerful in the party. These days, right-wing fanatics control the GOP. That's the Republican base. What used to be a fringe in the party is the party these days. And most Americans go along with it because most Americans don't pay any attention to this stuff. They believe what they see on Fox. The believe the loony emails they get.

There are any number of reasons why this is scary, and global warming is only one of them. Even if these loons implode - which isn't assured - it might be too late. Well, it's probably too late already when it comes to global warming. But the longer we delay, the worse it will get.

1 comment:

Jim Harris said...

Great post Bill. Your post inspired me to create one of my own. See