My friend, Larry Schwieger of National Wildlife Federation, tweeted out his new year’s wish, “for a 2013 that ushers in a deeper understanding of how important it is for all to come together to solve the climate crisis. We owe it to our children and all those who may follow after us.” It’s a noble wish, and a conservative wish I might add, but one that has about as much chance of happening as hell freezing over. I have no doubt that Larry genuinely believes that climate change is the most serious threat facing the planet – but Larry’s problem, from my perspective, is that far too many don’t believe what he believes. It’s not because the object of his wish isn’t important and worthy of discussion or action. No, it’s because the issue of climate change has become so politicized that there is a paucity of credible, authoritative voices on the matter.
I’m reminded of that childhood story of Henny Penny – aka Chicken Little – who hysterically or mistakenly feared the end of the world and ran about crying “the sky is falling the sky is falling.” Or, similarly, the story of the boy who cried wolf, and when the wolf really did materialize, no believer was available to respond to that moment of crisis. Were Chicken Little and the Boy simply misunderstood or did they lack credibility to create that moment of collective action? Human existence is replete with doomsday, hysterical voices that are but mere footnotes in history. Such climate talk could likewise become a footnote in history or, alternatively, it could perhaps come true and, in this case, the sky might actually be falling and the seas rising. It’s certainly possible, but, like Henny Penny, the public isn’t persuaded that it’s a serious problem. Nor is it persuaded by the viability of the sweeping and costly calls for government action.
The public isn’t persuaded because the credibility of voices on the matter is missing. That fact alone should be terribly troubling to us as a society, because when science is no longer truly scientific or truly credible that has a ripple effect far beyond climate change. Within the raging debate on climate change, one is labeled as either a “believer” or “denier.” There is no room for those, like me, who remain skeptical yet genuinely concerned about the problem and about finding a solution, if it is as bad as environmentalists suggest. Unfortunately, the climate scientists who could shed light on the critical facts and help fashion reasonable policy solutions are scant to nonexistent and far too many have crossed the line from pure science into junk science and zealous advocacy, thereby discrediting themselves, their profession and the noble cause. Just ask scientists like Michael Mann, the author of the hockey-stick theory who, rather than engage in honest debate, has made himself an easy target and would rather sue his critics who rightfully have called into question his science and credibility. And for climate scientists like James Hansen who argue for the criminal prosecution of those who disagree with his theory, such an inane comment calls into question his seriousness as a scientist and continues to erode the healthy zone of free and fair exchange on scientific endeavors, making it ever more difficult to engage in reasoned debate around the science and the policy solutions. The middle-ground is no ground, because it has become a ghost town. Nobody who cares about the environment, so it goes, dares publicly question the science of global warming. And so Senator Inhofe remains the courageous Senate scofflaw who gives voice to the many so-called deniers or skeptics.
So what happens after climate scientists and science have lost all credibility – who then is the public to believe and what are they to believe? Regrettably, the public is left to pick sides between two less than honest camps, one that is too often engaged in “sky is falling” environmental hysteria and the other marked by well funded interests who deny the existence of any problem. Science and facts be damned. What is lost in the milieu is the fact that policy ought be informed by and flow from good science. However, policy is being blindly decided in the absence of good and credible science, like a dart seeking to find its target in the dead of night.
Climate change has always happened, with or without humans. The seas have risen and receded for time immemorial, with or without humans. The question isn’t whether climate change is happening. It is – that’s a fact. I learned that as a young boy exploring the backwoods of north-central Florida upon discovering sea shells hundreds of miles from the coast and hiking Deer Isle, a glacial terminal moraine off the coast of Maine.
Climate changes and always will. So what if man-induced climate change is real and happening. There is plausible evidence both for and against it. With the planet supporting now over 7 billion humans (or 122 humans per every square mile of land on earth), it is certainly plausible and indeed likely that our ever increasing population and collective existence is impacting the earth, including climate. If, in fact, anthropogenically caused climate change is occurring, the weather will change, the seas will rise, and winners and losers will abound. However, contrary to those who believe that, absent drastic government intervention, climate change portends apocalyptic consequences, the world will not come to an end nor will many of the dire predictions come to pass. The sun will continue to rise each day, the tides will continue to ebb and flow, the rain will continue to fall and the streams flow, humans and animals will find new ways to adapt and continue to exist in some form or fashion.
The more meaningful and probing questions for me and the other so-called “deniers” or “skeptics” are how much are humans contributing to climate change, what are the likely impacts upon the human and non-human, what can we reasonably do in response, and what are the costs of action or inaction? But particularly, what does this mean for animal or plant species who could be threatened with extinction due to their inability to adapt to ecosystem changes – and what are the implications for human existence and enjoyment and use of those species?
As a conservative who cares about the human condition and wisely conserving earth’s resources, the pursuit of honest answers and viable solutions does matter. We need credible and courageous voices to help us sort out these complexities and potentialities, the limits of our scientific understanding, and the risks of inaction to us and future generations. I believe common ground exists between believers and deniers where we can work toward adaptation strategies, similar to those promoted by The Nature Conservancy, as a “no regrets” approach to this problem or non-problem.
So to my friend Larry and others who wish for a better 2013, I fear this noble wish will not arrive next year or for many years to come unless we endeavor together to inject greater credibility into the discussion, separate science from policy and advocacy, embrace greater tolerance for reasoned debate and disagreement, and have a thoughtful discussion on a range of policies and approaches, including adaptation to ameliorate the effects.