Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Climate Denial: Tip of the Iceberg

He's fighting for his life,” Geeta said.

I had just complained about NC Senator Richard Burr's lack of leadership on climate change legislation, knowing from a source within his office that he understood and essentially accepted the science. A few weeks before, when his opponent Elaine Marshall asked for questions to pose in their second debate, I suggested she confront him with this key contradiction.

Fighting for his life – what an odd thing to say about a rich, powerful man, seemingly in good health. I thought instead of the leaders of island nations, then the large delegation from Nags Head (Outer Banks) I accompanied to DC last fall to lobby for climate legislation. In both cases, rising sea levels actually threaten livelihoods. The base for North Carolina Republicans has long been in the eastern part of the state, but few of these conservatives actually live on the front lines, right on the ocean. It certainly did not occur to me to ask what party the gravely worried mayor belonged to as she passed photos of projected sea level change in Nags Head around the senatorial office.

But we all know that positions on climate science depend fairly uniformly upon party affiliation. As someone who is liberal to progressive in outlook and with a strong science education, I continue to struggle to take this in. But the script in Washington is clear. Republicans want to defeat anything that President Obama supports, because their principal aim is to defeat him in 2012. If you accept the science, as does Senator Burr, you do so privately and quietly. Perhaps when the season rolls around, behind the scenes he will support a Republican presidential candidate who wants to do something about climate change, which was once John McCain's position.

After the initial awakening shock among viewers of “An Inconvenient Truth,” it has now become easier to be a climate denier. The religious right is more resurgent than ever, and our science education is below average for the developed world. If even scientifically literate Republicans shy away from the moral imperative to craft a societal response to climate change, we are in huge trouble.

Let me give you an example. Several months ago I had a conversation with a brilliant conservative medical doctor who was delighted that I had actually taken the time to study safety issues involved with nuclear power and changed my position to accept nukes as a far wiser investment than any form of coal. When I shifted the conversation to climate change, he was disgusted that I was revealing my true colors, aligning with the liberals after all. He dismissed me, showing no willingness to discuss the issue. And this guy is a highly trained scientist.

More recently, I had a discussion with an old student of mine, a bright woman who understood science when she was young. She showed a profound mistrust of both scientists and the government. When I pressed her more deeply with regard to a possible motive for the right's allegation of conspiiracy on the part of global climate scientists, she said, “World government. They all want climate regulation as an excuse for world government.” And then my own prejudices flooded me as I recalled her conversion to conservative Catholicism, with its links to the Illuminati Conspiracy.

Okay, so I mistrust Big Business and the conservatives mistrust Big Government (never mind that George Bush presided over the biggest increase in the national debt in history. The second biggest was under Ronald Reagan.) In the wake of Copenhagen, which exposed the collusion between these two giants, climate activists are more and more putting their faith in smaller units – states, cities, towns, small farmers and enlightened small businesses. But, though there is definitely hope in many of these, I consider this tack another, more subtle form of climate denial. What it shows is that we cannot live without hope, and with our country as split as any time since the Civil War – on so many levels – the possibility of largescale action of any sort seems virtually nil.

But as I argued in a recent post, following Dianne Dumanoski, hope is sentimental and shallow if it lacks honesty. Honestly, I do not think we can change on the level required without concerted international action. This can happen through 1)deliberate international agreements, heretofore negotiated through the U.N., 2) a global movement like the civil rights movement of the sixties, or 3)economic collapse. One year after Copenhagen, as COP16 at Cancun concludes, an international treaty continues to elude climate diplomats. I contrast to Copenhagen, there was general goodwill, but the big decisions were again postponed until next year (Kyoto expires in 2012 folks!). And the global movement for ecojustice is growing, but unless it is rapidly transformed in terms of numbers, energy, and strategy - massive waves of civil disobedience, especially here in the US - it will be insufficient.

It's hard not to see the most painful form of mitigation, global economic collapse, as the likeliest way to avoid catastrophic runaway global warming. Its portents are many, starting with the weaker Eurozone economies, but with the world's biggest economy teetering at their heels. The political leadership so absent in the climate wars is doing little to avert a massive debt spiral, leading to hyperinflation and Endgame Depression. Witness the huge debt risks of the President's current deal with the Republicans on tax policy.

Of course the ultimate “hostages” in the current debate on tax policy go far beyond Middle America to the very boundaries of modernist civilization and beyond to the great community of life. It is past time, Senator Burr and your brothers-in-hiding, to realize that fighting for your life means working for a world in which your grandchildren can thrive. To do so means to fight for Gaia, for the health of the biosphere is the bottom line for all political posturing and economic tinkering . The Iroquois Creed of making decisions with eight generations in mind would be a modest place to start (they were a democracy!). Partisan gain does not equal survival, any more than a narrow sense of self-interest drives the Invisible Hand to dispense the wealth of nations. Our wealth is retained in an earth system that is as close to steady-state as possible. That means, Senators Burr, McCain, Lugar, Scott Brown, and the Maine Olympians, that you only win when we all win - all classes, all parties, all species. And remember, even if beleaguered President Obama achieves the improbable and wins a second term, there are term limits. Your side will have its turn again. And if you work for strong, meaningful climate legislation, I will support you. Underneath our partisan differences, we all need and want the same thing. Fighting for your life really comes down to the chance for the survival of your species on a viable planet.

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