Watch the climate conversation run aground
Here’s a fascinating anthropological case study on how climate change plays out in the heartland. It seems there was a spirited debate on the issue in the Iowa legislature recently. More or less everyone involved got things wrong, which … welcome to my life. But the way the debate unfolded is quite revealing.
It begins when Democratic Sen. Rob Hogg (that name can’t hurt in Iowa politics) reads a statement from a coalition of Iowa religious leaders:
Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing our world today and as religious leaders representing diverse faith traditions we are called to reaffirm our commitment to be responsible stewards of Earth’s resources and to act in love to our neighbors both locally and globally. Scientists, including those representing 28 Iowa colleges and universities who recently released a statement, have warned us that changes in global climate patterns are brining more extreme weather events to Iowa, the United States and our world.
So far so good.
Enter Republican Sen. David Johnson:
With all due respect to our religious leaders … how much are you willing to spend to reverse what you call global warming? The country of Spain made a huge transition to their economy for green energy. What was the result of that? Bankruptcy?
This is a reference to one of those denier perennials, the Spanish jobs study. Conservatives wield it like a talisman. It was an atrocious study and has been debunked many times, but of course that’s made almost no difference. Suffice to say, Spain has economic troubles, but they are entirely unrelated to its renewable energy subsidies, which amount to a tiny sliver of its GDP.
(Side note: For a brief period earlier this month, wind turbines covered 60 percent of Spain’s power demand.)
Hogg then grew agitated:
How much better off would this country be if there hadn’t been a $6 billion drought last year in Texas? How much better off would our state be if we hadn’t suffered $20 billion in flood damage over the last 20 years? You want to ruin our economy, Senator Johnson, you stick your head in the sand and ignore this issue.
I like your spirit, Mr. Hogg, but … no. The time lag between cause and climate effect is much larger than that. Any action that might plausibly have affected the Texas drought or Iowa floods took place many, many decades ago. And there is nothing Iowa can do in terms of climate pollution — nothing humanity can do — to prevent next year’s droughts and floods. Actions taken today to reduce climate pollution will have effects on global temperatures, if at all, many, many decades in the future.
This is part of why climate is known as a “super-wicked problem.” Many people benefit from burning fossil fuels today. Those who benefit from not burning fossil fuels (at least in terms of climate) live in the latter half of the century.
Johnson responded just as heatedly:
I’m on the side of the scientists. I served with in Antarctica and Greenland and I’m the only member of this body that has done that. And there is no agreement in the scientific community, no consensus that things have really changed because change happens.
“Things have changed because change happens” is, um, unfalsifiable. Nay, meaningless. I think what what he’s trying to say, however, is that there’s “no agreement in the scientific community” on climate change. This is, of course, flatly false. A 2010 survey published by the National Academy of Sciences found that 97-98 percent of working climate scientists agree on the basics of anthropogenic climate change.
Hogg and Johnson are both a little confused, though obviously Hogg much less — and much less detrimentally — so. But neither perspective is the one that does most damage to the prospects of progress.
No, the most dangerous perspective is expressed at the end of the rambling and fruitless hour-long debate, by Republican Sen. Randy Feenstra:
Honestly, on that subject I think we should just agree to disagree because it’s not going to get us anywhere.
This is the climate conversation in miniature. The problem is raised. Conservatives forecast economic doom. The economics show that we can do a great deal at comparatively moderate cost (certainly moderate relative to the cost of climate change impacts), but it’s very difficult to overcome fear with promises. So advocates make dramatic, often exaggerated claims about proximate impacts. Deniers dismiss the science altogether. And then people who aren’t committed to one “side” or another get sick of it and want to move on — to “agree to disagree.”
This is why conservative deniers have a built-in advantage on climate. They don’t have to win the argument. They just have to keep arguing until everyone gets sick of it.