Here in the United States, we fret a lot about global warming denial. Not only is it a dangerous delusion, it's an incredibly prevalent one. Depending on your survey instrument of choice, we regularly learn that substantial minorities of Americans deny, or are skeptical of, the science of climate change.
The global picture, however, is quite different. For instance, recently the U.K.-based market research firm Ipsos MORI released its "Global Trends 2014" report, which included a number of survey questions on the environment asked across 20 countries. (h/t Leo Hickman). And when it came to climate change, the result was very telling:
To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes orRSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes -- you can learn more here.
You don't know it yet. There's no way that you could. But 400 years from now, a historian will write that the time in which you're now living is the "Penumbral Age" of human history -- meaning, the period when a dark shadow began to fall over us all. You're living at the start of a new dark age, a new counter-Enlightenment. Why? Because too many of us living today, in the years just after the turn of the millennium, deny the science of climate change.
Such is the premise of a thought-provoking new work of "science-based fiction" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two historians of science (Oreskes at Harvard, Conway at Caltech) best known for their classic 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. In a surprising move, they have now followed up that expose of the roots of modern science denialism with a work of "cli-fi," or climate science fiction, entitledThe Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. [SPOILER ALERT: Much of the plot of this book will be revealed below!] In it, Oreskes and Conway write from the perspective of a historian, living in China (the country that fared the best in facing the ravages of climate change) in the year 2393. The historian seeks to analyze the biggest paradox imaginable: Why humans who saw the climate disaster coming, who were thoroughly and repeatedly warned, did nothing about it.
We've known for some time that as Republicans become more highly educated, or better at general science comprehension, they become stronger in their global warming denial. It's a phenomenon I've called the "smart idiot" effect: Apparently being highly informed or capable interacts with preexisting political biases to make those on the right more likely to be wrong than they would be if they had less education or knowledge.
Now, a new study in the journal Climatic Change has identified a closely related phenomenon. Call it the "rich idiot" effect: The study finds that among Republicans, as levels of income increase, so does their likelihood of "dismissing the dangers associated with climate change." But among Democrats and independents, there is little or no change in climate views as levels of income increase or decrease.
For many years, the U.S. National Science Foundation, more recently with the help of the General Social Survey, has asked the public the same true or false question about evolution:"Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." And for many years, the responses to this question have been dismal. In 2006, 2008, and 2010, for instance, less than half of the public correctly answered "true."
In 2012, however, the NSF and GSS conducted an experiment to try to better understand why people fare so badly on this evolution question. For half of survey respondents, the words "according to the theory of evolution" were added to the beginning of the statement above. And while only 48 percent gave the correct answer to the unaltered question, an impressive 72 percent correctly answered the new, prefaced version.
So why such a huge gap? Perhaps the original question wasn't tapping into scientific knowledge at all; rather, it was challenging the religious identity of creationists who think the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Presented with the new phrasing, however, even many creationists know what the theory of evolution states; they just deny that it is true. So are these people really "scientifically illiterate," as many in the science world might claim, or are they instead … something else?
There's no better evidence of how much the Republican Party has changed on the environment than this: The fact that Environmental Protection Agency administrators who served under Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush all think global warming is real and we should do something about it.
On Wednesday, this quartet -- William Ruckelshaus, who served under both Nixon and Reagan; Lee Thomas, who served under Reagan; William Reilly, who served under George Bush Sr., and Christine Todd Whitman, who served under George W. Bush -- testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. But as the Huffington Post's Kate Sheppard reports, the Republican senators present "mostly ignored" their testimony.
The whole spectacle was enough to inspire a Jon Stewart rant, one that is truly priceless. Watch:
Two weeks ago in the eastern Pacific hurricane basin, we saw Category 4 Hurricane Amanda, which was too strong, too early. Amanda was the "strongest May hurricane on record in the eastern Pacific basin during the satellite era," noted the National Hurricane Center.
And right now, the basin is host to Category 4 Hurricane Cristina, which follows on Amanda's record with a new one. The storm just put on an "extraordinary" burst of intensification in the last 24 hours, rocketing from Category 1 to Category 4 strength, with maximum sustained wind speeds of 150 miles per hour. And now that it has gotten there, notes the National Hurricane Center, we have another new record:
David Brat, the Virginia economics professor and Tea Partier who just beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary, is a staunch libertarian. And these days, that doesn't just mean thinking the free market should run most things, from the energy sector to health care. It also often means denying the reality of global warming.
In a recent campaign event video (which has since been made private), Brat explains his free-marketeer perspective on environmental and energy problems. Naturally, he believes that American ingenuity will lead the way to a cleaner environment. But he also hints at a disbelief in the science of global warming, and alludes to a well-worn myth that has been widely used on the right to undermine trust in climate scientists -- the idea that just a few decades ago, in the 1970s, climate experts all thought we were headed into "another Ice Age."
Here's how Brat put it: "If you let Americans do their thing, there is no scarcity, right? They said we're going to run out of food 200 years ago, and then we're going to have another ice age. Now it's, we're heating up … ." At this point, Brat waves his hand dismissively.
If you care about the place of science in our culture, then this has to be the best news in a very long time. Last Sunday night, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey -- which airs on Fox and then the next day on the National Geographic Channel -- actually tied ABC's The Bachelorette for the top ratings among young adult viewers, the "key demographic" coveted by advertisers. And it did so by -- that's right -- airing an episode about the reality of climate change.
Tuesday evening, I had the privilege of sitting down with the show's host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, to discuss this milestone, and how he feels generally as the 13-part series comes to a close. (The final episode, entitled "Unafraid of the Dark," airs this Sunday night.) "The ratings are exceeding our expectations," said Tyson, fresh off the climate episode triumph. But Tyson emphasized that to him, that's not the most important fact: Rather, it's that a science show aired at all in primetime on Sunday night.
Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its much anticipated plans to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, the source of about a third of U.S. emissions. It turns out the regulations will be pretty ambitious: a 30 percent decrease in emissions in this sector from 2005 levels by the year 2030 (though some say that is still not enough).
Critics are out in force, of course, and their chief tactic seems to be economic alarmism. Earlier this morning, the front page of Drudge Report displayed this image (bizarrely, as the new rules have nothing to do with oil and wouldn't drive up gas prices):