Rhetoric Overload

“There is a danger that human intervention will accelerate and intensify natural climate changes to such a point that it will become impossible to adapt our socio-economic systems in time… The human race can lead itself into this climatic catastrophe—or it can avert it.”

No, that isn’t Greenpeace talking. It’s Swiss Re, one of the largest insurers in the world. I don’t know about you, but I have some rules of thumb that guide me in my daily life. One of them is that when actuaries start spewing incendiary rhetoric, be very afraid. Because the next thing you know, some tart from a place called Babylon shows up at your door, asking for a place to stay “for a few days.”

And when the Pentagon and the World Bank, possibly the two most conservative institutions in the world, say that an imminent global climate change catastrophe is plausible and “should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern,” I half expect four creepy horsemen to show up looking for said Babylonian tart, saying that they’re “her ride.”

The Pentagon report, according to the stodgy British publication The Observer, is particularly troubling because the authors were Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network. Not exactly your credentialed eco-types and certainly not people who could be characterized as “liberal wing-nuts,” as the right loves to call people who worry about the environment.

An imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change “would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately,” the report concludes. As early as next year, widespread flooding because of sea-level rise will create major upheaval for millions, the report says. Note to self: Call realtor about beachfront property in Nebraska.

Not to be left out—but mostly concerned with the recruitment spin—the Army has decided to use fighting environmental degradation as a tool to attract and motivate the ecologically minded to sign up to protect and defend Bambi. Perhaps the Army is ahead of the Rush Limbaugh Curve here, understanding that when the chips really take wing, everyone among us will be an environmentalist.

All of these reports, plus a few recent guided missiles—such as Michael Crichton’s fictional State of Fear or Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s essay, “The Death of Environmentalism”—have proven grist for the cyber-mill, often in exchanges so vitriolic and polarized that they make you wonder whether humankind’s acquisition of language was, on balance, a good thing. Typical is an exchange from the Web site of a British journalist named Melanie Phillips who has written on global climate change, mostly to say that it’s a crock. She writes that “the British government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, has said that global warming is a more serious threat to the world than terrorism. His remarks are utter balderdash from start to finish and illustrate the truly lamentable decline of science into ideological propaganda.” The reader commentary starts out “Melanie, you really are an idiot” and goes downhill from there.

President Bush and his supporters downplay the idea of global climate change and dispute, ignore, or minimalize key reports, even those from our own government. They tend to argue that everything will be fine if we just let the marketplace take care of the problem, if indeed we even have a problem, which still has not been proven. Their mantra is, in essence, don’t worry, probably there is no problem, and if there is, technology and the free market will resolve it.

That sounds like the response several years ago of a US public health official who responded to a domestic outbreak of necrotizing fasciitis—that’s flesh-eating bacteria to you and me—which had just dissolved several people’s faces, arms, and torsos. He explained the symptoms—the most definitive being flesh falling off your body parts—and then cautioned listeners “not to panic” if this started to happen to them. As if there could ever be, even theoretically, a better time for panic than when your face is dripping off your skull.

The left isn’t blameless, either. The radical worst talks about international conspiracies, vague plots to kill 200-mpg engines to keep us dependent on fossil fuels, and criticizes others for not being liberal enough if they don’t believe worst-case scenarios about the end of the world as we know it. (As Monty Python once observed in The Life of Brian, the only people the People’s Front of Judea hated worse than the Romans were the Judean People’s Front.)

The worst of the right, on the other hand, dismisses melting snowpacks and other current observations as anecdotal, computer models as junk science, and the press and almost everyone else as manufacturing a crisis to further their own agendas. Besides, even if there is a general warming, they say, human activities are not the cause, unless scientists can prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

But then what kind of proof is left, after direct observation, statistics, and computer models all have been deemed suspect? When you get right down to it, nothing short of cockatiels in Canada is going to convince that crowd; it has a pat way to dismiss any argument not to its taste.

Meanwhile, moderates are frustrated by the whole tenor of the debate. Typical is this post from the Melanie Phillips site: “I deplore the fact that the whole global warming issue has become a liberal/conservative issue. It’s not and shouldn’t be. If someone whose general social and political policies I disagree with makes a single statement I agree with, does that change my attitude toward social and political policies? Of course not. Questioning the ‘war on CO2’ does not make me a socio-political conservative. Even if I turn out to be wrong, it doesn’t affect my politics. Another example: in my opinion, the Bush administration is on the right track regarding arsenic in water and on the wrong track regarding oil drilling in the ANWR. Both opinions are based on my views of the issue, not on whether I voted for Bush (I didn’t) or whether I am a member of Sierra Club (I am).”

Crichton’s State of Fear only muddied the waters (er, icepack), when he alleged in his fictional work and the accompanying book tour that global climate change is a sham designed to get more funding and attention for both scientists and the environment. So it’s a work of fiction criticizing scientists for allegedly maintaining a fiction and for being too political. He also rakes the press over the coals for going along with it. Then Crichton goes on the TV book tour, accusing scientists of engaging more in politics than in science. His hyperbole is picked up by the folks who think global warming is at best bad science and at worst, a UN plot, and that any minute, the black UN helicopters, staffed with angry people from developing countries and furious Beneluxers tired of treading water, are going to be strafing your neighborhood.

So, after rooting around in blogs for months, I was thoroughly depressed. If, as most of the evidence suggests, global climate change is already happening and mankind is contributing to it, then all of the anti-climate-change rhetoric is acting as Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, paralyzing important action on real problems. Moreover, how can the public ever be expected to pierce the fog to decide what is true and what isn’t? This isn’t the era of Newton, when the very top scientists in the world could get together and argue using language and concepts—like calculus, physics, and biological taxonomy, for example—that we now expect bright high school students to grasp. Even well-meaning, well- educated people who genuinely care about the environment are confused, and the complexity of the science requires whole scientific communities—meteorologists, mathematical modelers, programmers, biologists, chemists, and physicists—to collaborate to reach conclusions that are often complicated, provisional, and qualified. It’s enough to make you want to retreat to a cave—preferably in the Himalayas.

So I was somewhat relieved to talk to Steven Krull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which does polling on social and political issues. I asked him if the most recent round of Crichton-esque controversy has changed the way people view the environment. “No, that’s a very marginal line of thinking, and it doesn’t show up in our work. Policymakers believe that [those thinkers] are very significant and very vocal, which sometimes makes [the policymakers] make bad decisions. People are remarkably stable in how they view climate change and the environment in general.”

How do Americans—the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions—view global climate change, then? “It’s still very abstract. They think of it as a problem more for their children than for themselves. They still think there’s a debate going on, and they don’t think the consensus is as definite as it really is.” For now, he says, “It’s something for grownups to deal with, and the grownups are squabbling about it.”

Is there any hope of moving people toward less fossil fuel use and greater concern about climate change? Here, Krull provides some hope for those hoping to effect change in attitudes. “One thing working in the issue’s favor is that people link global warming with air pollution, and water and air pollution are near the top of most people’s environmental concerns,” he says, adding that the concern over “things in the food and air is very immediate.”

Americans aren’t unwilling to pay to solve the problem, says Krull—we’re willing to tax ourselves to fund environmental issues. Surveys consistently show that the public would be willing to spend an extra $15-$25 per month to combat global warning, and they would even tolerate a moderate tax on oil to develop alternative energy sources. “Politicians think that the public is totally unwilling to accept taxes, but that’s just not true. If they know it’s really going to be applied toward the cause and not disappear into the maw of big government, they’ll support it.”

Then why aren’t we, on average, willing to do sensible things—either individually or collectively—to make sure that we don’t face a problem that most authorities say will be horrendous if it is, in fact, real? Is it because, as the authors put it in “The Death of Environmentalism,” early successes in the environmental movement led to “a strong confidence—and in some cases, bald arrogance—that the environmental protection frame was enough to succeed at a policy level?”

The article goes on to charge that “the environmental community’s belief that their power derives from defining themselves as defenders of ‘the environment’ has prevented us from winning major legislation on global warming at the national level.”

Krull says that it’s a little more complex than that. People realize that “The biggest cost is going to be mobility. Mobility will become more distributed by wealth, and we don’t like that.” For any change, he says, “You’d need a strong leader to say, ‘This is how it is, and this is what we need to do.’ Then I think people will listen, and say, ‘Well, OK, I guess that’s right.'” Americans, in particular, says Krull, also believe that technology will help solve the problem eventually. “I think a lot more Americans hold that belief than Europeans,” he says.

Krull says that environmentalists might get further by focusing on the loss of fossil fuels rather than their after-burn effects. Preliminary research indicates that people might respond better to conserving fossil fuels because they will eventually run out than because they might be creating a greenhouse effect. Some groups are already focusing on this, less as a strategy than as a way to ready people for a more agrarian, locally based future.

Meanwhile, the right counters that global warming might actually be good for us, citing improved production for some crops and warmer winters for people in cold climates.

Is there a grownup in the house?

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