Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Climate Change and the GOP
Party platforms encompass a whole range of issues -- the economy, the budget, and international relations, for instance -- on which reasonable people can disagree. But a troubling feature of the 2010 political landscape is that there is another stark dividing line between the two major parties. One side believes in science, the other does not. Consider this: every single Republican senate candidate this year doubts or denies that humans are responsible for global warming.
It wasn't long ago that moderate Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham were willing to break with their party and work on climate change legislation. Of course they differed with Democrats in the way the legislation should be written, but they genuinely wanted to stop global warming. But it appears those days are over, at least for now. It's not that these moderate Republicans have changed their minds on the issue, but that they face enormous pressure from the right to conform with far right ideology. Any Republican who isn't sufficiently conservative risks a challenge from the right, and as we've seen this year, those challenges have been stunningly successful.
Meanwhile, the science on this issue is unambiguous. But remarkably, public opinion in the United States has been going in the wrong direction. A recent Rasmussen poll found that only 39% of Americans believe human activities like burning fossil fuels are chiefly to blame for climate change. More Americans believe long-term natural trends are causing global warming.
This is cause for concern, because if we think sunspots or volcanoes are the primary agents of global warming, we are unlikely to reduce energy consumption and make a serious effort to transition to clean, renewable energy. The steps we must take to mitigate global warming are not going to be easy, but they are much more difficult when we have to keep waging the public opinion war. And unfortunately, it has been politically advantageous for one side to exploit doubts over global warming and fears of the big government conspiracy to make us all drive electric cars.
I'm always intrigued when I hear people blame sunspots for global warming. While it is certainly true that sunspot activity can be a contributor to changes in Earth's climate, the science on this matter is a bit complicated and somewhat esoteric. My guess is, most people who are blaming sunspots for global warming don't know much about the actual science involved, and they're simply recycling a science-y sounding argument they've heard from skeptics on the right. But this much is certain: since the industrial revolution, and especially since our population and technological explosion of the last several decades, humans have dumped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an unimaginable rate (in a year, the United States adds about 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere). Of course, carbon dioxide is invisible, but we are able to measure it. We know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means the more we put into the atmosphere, the more heat that is trapped. And the correlation between the increase in carbon dioxide emissions and rising global temperatures is clear.
But so long as there is a voter who is uninformed or easily swayed -- especially one who is predisposed to distrusting Democrats -- there will always be politicians who are more than happy to capitalize on global warming skepticism. They may even abandon their true beliefs in the process, but oh well, that's politics. And anyway, that makes protecting the oil companies that much easier.
Too bad for us, the future is at stake. Don't forget to vote today.