Shifting Winds in Republican Climate Rhetoric
A few people have talked to me about the fact that the last Republican debate (apparently) showed the majority of candidates admitting that climate change is real and actually happening. As evidence like this new data from NOAA--which shows that there is a 97% chance that 2015 will be the warmest year on record for the globe--continues to mount and the flat denial position becomes more and more untenable, I suspect we'll see more of this. I'm not sure that we should get too excited about that, though.
Yes, this debate season has been at least marginally better than what came before. Only (only!) a handful of the serious Presidential nomination candidates still maintain that climate change is a liberal conspiracy. In some sense, this is clearly progress. Getting everyone to agree on the science is a necessary condition to actually making substantive policy changes. It's also manifestly not a sufficient condition, though, and I'm concerned that it might just be a smokescreen for a more insidious (and difficult to combat) way for politicians to dig in their heels.
The comparison I like to make is with young earth creationism (YEC) and intelligent design (ID). YEC had its heyday in the 80s and 90s; that's when you saw people openly espousing this view on national TV, and serious, intelligent people (including philosophers) standing up and debating those morons. Some time in the late 90s and early 2000s, it became pretty clear that that battle was lost. The majority of even Americans are just not dumb and/or gullible enough to swallow the idea that the Earth is 6,000 years old, and that fossils were put in the ground by Satan to test our faith. The scientific evidence for an old earth is just too overwhelming, and comes from too many disciplines--much like the evidence for climate change.
However, rather than just going away, YEC morphed into ID. Many of the same people who were unwilling to believe that geology, nuclear physics, astronomy, cosmology, &c. could all be pointing to the same conclusion and yet be wildly, totally wrong were more than happy to believe that the universe is billions of years old, but that life was designed and created in its current form by a deliberate intelligence, and that humans were that intelligence's "special project," not just one among many evolved organisms. ID has proven to be much harder to combat, and (in the long run) much more destructive than YEC precisely because it is more moderate. Since they avoid espousing the same sort of patently crazy claims that are absurd on their face, ID proponents have been much, much more successful at sneaking creationism into science curricula. They've repackaged many of the same ideas from YEC in slightly less ridiculous forms, given them the trappings of science, and pushed to have those ideas included in science education ("teach the controversy!").
I've long predicted that something similar would happen with climate change denial. Once a critical mass of people started to believe that climate change was real and actually happening (which, with in-your-face data like that shown here, is really hard to dispute now), denialists would be forced to give give some ground. I predicted that they would admit that climate change was happening, but begin to argue that either (1) humans weren't chiefly responsible, (2) that it wasn't a very big deal, and/or (3) that mitigation policies would be worse for most people than just letting it happen. It increasingly seems that this prediction was right, because I see all three of those arguments much more frequently than I see flat out denial these days.
This is troubling because it's much more difficult to combat these ideas, especially (3). Reasonable people can intelligently disagree about which climate policy is the best one to pursue, all things considered, and this ID-type denialism capitalizes on that fact to stymie climate policy progress. Much as with ID and YEC, the end result is much the same: we continue to sit here arguing about stuff while we keep the policies that we know are causing serious problems in place. Agreeing that climate change is happening makes it look like progress is being made, but unless that admission is followed by a genuine recognition of the severity of the problem and a serious commitment to solve it, that progress is almost entirely illusory. It lets political candidates appear more reasonable and progressive, but in the end leads to exactly the same place that flat-out denial does: sticking with the status quo.
If they really took the science seriously, they'd be paying significantly more attention to the root causes of the problem, and listening to scientists about how to go about fixing that problem. They'd be talking about enacting real policy changes, and convening panels to really investigate which policies are likely to help. I haven't seen any evidence of that happening, and I don't really expect to in the near future.
The fact that it took this long to drag a statement like "Yes, this mountain of evidence is really there and you're not just making shit up" out of these people suggests that going from here to real policy shifts--an almost infinitely more nuanced, controversial step, even among experts--is going to be all but impossible. We'll keep going with the same old policies until something catastrophic happens, and then everyone will start screaming for a quick and easy fix. This is a big part of why I think it's quite likely that we'll see serious geoengineering proposals on the table before we see serious mitigation policies enacted, and that terrifies me, as it should terrify you.