The political storm over climate change

The fallout from Hurricane Sandy confirms how hard it is to have a rational debate about climatic issues.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

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Superstorm Sandy was not the end of New York City as we know it (although it may be the end of the known Jersey Shore.) The city will recover, of course. Power will be restored. Path trains to New Jersey and the New York subway system, which sustained the worst damage in its 108-year history, will eventually be fully repaired, with difficulty. (The system is now partially restored.)

But it was an unprecedented storm that wreaked unprecedented damage (multi-billion dollar damage), although neither the storm nor the damage was un-predicted. Scientists have long warned that New York was at serious risk of the serious flooding wrought by the 13-foot storm surge that accompanied Sandy. Still the city was unprepared and will be unprepared again if hit by a similar storm in the next few years. Massive new infrastructure required to protect it from predictable future floods is not even in the planning stage.

Sea levels are rising; that’s a fact. Storms, and droughts, have increased in severity and weirdness in recent years; that’s a fact, too, but one open to interpretation. Maybe the freak storms we’ve been experiencing are mere blips. Maybe not. Maybe the convergence of extreme weather events with predictions of extreme weather events by believers in climate change is mere coincidence. Maybe not.

Might we conduct a serious, substantive, public discussion about the fact of rising seas and the possibilities of climate change? Probably not in the near future, if the past and present are prologue. Climate change has not been discussed much, if at all, in the 2012 presidential race, although both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have expressed belief that it’s occurring.

‘I believe the world is getting warmer’, Romney said, in June, 2011. ‘It’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases.’ But on the right, climate change is regarded as a left-wing conspiracy or fable. (Right-wing religious nuts periodically attribute severe storms to God’s wrath at our tolerance of gay people.) So Romney’s hesitancy to repeat his 2011 belief in 2012 is unsurprising. (And, anyone paying attention to him knows that the opinions Romney expresses today are rarely predictive of the opinions he’ll express tomorrow.)

Obama’s reasons for ignoring the climate change debate are less clear. Maybe it’s simply been overshadowed by the economy. Maybe it’s considered a dangerously controversial subject. But, interestingly, according to the Pew Forum, a strong majority believes that climate change is occurring:

‘Currently 67 per cent (of survey respondents) say there is solid evidence that the Earth’s average temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades, up four points since last year and 10 points since 2009. Similarly, an increasing proportion say that the rise in the Earth’s temperature has mostly been caused by human activity. Currently, 42 per cent say the warming is mostly caused by human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, while 19 per cent say it is mostly caused by natural patterns in the Earth’s environment. Last year, 38 per cent mostly attributed global warming to human activity, and in 2010 34 per cent did so.’

What does the public know? Public opinion reacts to weather patterns, not data. How much opinion is influenced by politics and media coverage is unclear. But it is clear that the subject of climate change has been so thoroughly politicised that, outside the scientific community, it exists more as an ideological marker than a matter for informed debate. ‘Partisan affiliation is the best predictor of someone’s belief in climate change’, Brookings Institute fellow Barry Rabe recently remarked.

If you’re a right-wing Republican, you’re likely to scoff at climate change and the people who believe in it. If you’re a left-wing Democrat, you’re likely to warn of its imminent dangers, scoffing at the people who consider it fantasy or hoax. Like abortion rights, gay marriage or assisted dying, climate change is treated as a moral or ideological question. That is simply idiotic. Yes, people who consider climate change a pressing reality can make moral arguments for addressing it; but whether or not it is actually occurring is question of fact, not morality or ideology. If climate change is illusory, an ideological bias favouring it is irrelevant; so is an ideological bias against it, if climate change is real.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her most recent book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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