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Obama, Copenhagen, and the Global Warming Skeptics

Next week President Obama will appear at an international climate summit in Copenhagen. A few weeks ago, he pledged his administration would work toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. In June a House of Representatives’ bill had already approved these targets, but the full Senate still needs to address the issue.

In November 2008, while still president-elect, Obama had sent a message to a bipartisan group of U.S. governors meeting in California. In it he said:

Few challenges facing America--and the world--are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We’ve seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.

Many Americans, however, don’t agree with President Obama that “the science is beyond dispute.” Not good enough for them are numerous reports since 1995 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), relying on more than 2,000 scientists worldwide, which cite increasing evidence of human-caused global warming. Not good enough is a May 2009 statement by the Academies of Science of the USA, other G-8 countries, and the five leading emerging economies (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa). It cited the IPCC’s 2007 declaration that “large reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases, principally CO2 [carbon dioxide], are needed soon to slow the increase of atmospheric concentrations, and avoid reaching unacceptable levels” and that “the need for urgent action to address climate change is now indisputable.”  Skeptics continue to insist, however, that scientists are “split” on the question.

And indeed there are some scientists who are skeptics. A mid-2009 Pew Research Center poll stated that only 84 percent of U.S. scientists said that “the earth is getting warmer because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels”--only 49 percent of the public agreed. But it is not science that seems mainly to motivate most skeptics. It is ideology or political inclination, chiefly of the right-wing variety. To better understand this motivation a brief look backwards is necessary.

Denying what most leading scientists think is nothing new in U.S. history. It was dramatically illustrated already in the famous Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925.  In it a Tennessee biology teacher was found guilty of teaching evolution rather than the biblical account of creation. Almost a century later, many Americans continued to think contrary to what most scientists maintained regarding evolution. According to the 2009 Pew poll mentioned above, while 87 percent of U. S. scientists maintain “that humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution is the result of natural processes such as natural selection,” only “32 percent of the U. S. public accepts this as true.”

In the 1990s a U.S. “cultural war” raged. On one side were conservatives who usually believed that their church and/or scripture guided them in determining truth and God’s will. Opposing them were those whom the book Culture Wars (1991) called progressives. They relied more on reason, their inner selves, and contemporary conditions in deciding right from wrong. But these progressives included not only atheists and agnostics, but also some religious believers of various faiths.

U. S. conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, in his book See, I Told You So (1993), attempted to link such progressives with communist, un-American thinking. He accused them of “waging cultural warfare--a tactic . . . which remains the last great hope for chronic America-bashers” who desired to capture the leading cultural institutions and subvert belief in God and “divinely inspired moral absolutes.”

Many human-caused global warming deniers follow in this conservative cultural-war tradition. Limbaugh himself stated in his 1993 book that “despite the hysterics of a few pseudo-scientists, there is no reason to believe in global warming.” In an August 15, 2005 broadcast he declared that global warming was "one of the biggest hoaxes being perpetrated on the people of the world" and that "environmentalists still cannot prove that this [global warming] is man-made."

Another conservative who used similar language was Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. In July 2003 he declared on the Senate floor that global warming alarmism was the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."  In September 2009, he announced that he would attend the Copenhagen conference to “ lead a truth squad.”

Still another conservative skeptic is national syndicated columnist George Will, who in February 2009 noted that a Pew poll indicated that the American people ranked climate change last out of twenty issues the government should prioritize. His explanation was that “real calamities [like the major economic recession then occurring] take our minds off hypothetical ones.” In a more recent column (November 8, 2009), he noted that “although the political and media drumbeat of alarm is incessant, a Pew poll shows that only 57 percent of Americans think there is solid evidence of global warming, down 20 points in three years.” In general, Will regards most environmentalists with suspicion, as we see from an even more recent column entitled “Awash in Fossil Fuels”--“today, there is a name for the political doctrine that rejoices in scarcity of everything except government. The name is environmentalism.”

Thanks in part to the influence of such conservative thinking, as well as that of lobbyists like those from ExxonMobil, global warming skepticism is much higher in the United States than in most other leading economic nations. Numerous Pew and Harris polls conducted from 2006 to 2009 make this clear. As with belief in evolution, so too with global warming, people’s religious beliefs also influence attitudes. Extensive polling by the World Values Surveys, conducted periodically since 1981, clearly demonstrates that citizens in the USA were more likely than those in most European countries and Japan to have traditionally religious values rather than secular-rationalistic ones. U.S. polling also demonstrates that evangelical Christians are much more likely to be global warming skeptics than are religiously unaffiliated people, with other Christians being somewhere in between. Such skepticism is also more common among those with less formal education and far more common among Republicans than Democrats.

Thus, it is clear that far more than science and reason are influencing the climate-change debate.  But the issue is fundamentally a scientific one, so we should approach it in the most scientific and rational way possible. Is it not more rational to heed the advice of the Academies of Science rather than a distinct minority of scientists, talk-show hosts, or global-warming denial web sites?

In making rational decisions it can be helpful to examine the past thinking of noble and wise people. One whose voice we might listen to is the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 1975, Russian physicist and human-rights advocate Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), whom President Reagan once honored by naming a day after him. Sakharov defined a scientific approach as “a method based on deep analysis of facts, theories, and views, presupposing unprejudiced, unfearing open discussion and conclusions.” Here are a few other quotes from him:

Carbon dioxide from the burning of coal is altering the heat-reflecting qualities of the atmosphere. Sooner or later, this will reach a dangerous level. But we do not know when. (1968)

I am now inclined to regard the many-faceted ecological threat to our environment as our most serious long-term problem. (1988)

Another individual concerned with environmental threats was the German-born economist E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977), who left Nazi Germany to settle in England. Already in the mid- 1950s, according to his daughter’s biography, he was speaking of the accelerating “exhaustion of non-renewable resources” (like the fossil fuels that George Will now assures us we are “awash in”) and insisting that “a civilization built on renewable resources . . .  is . . . superior to one built on non-renewable resources, such as oil, coal, metal, etc.” Later in such books as Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), he spelled out his self-sustaining, pro-environmental economic approach. He realized that the main cause of earth’s rapidly increasing environmental damage was industrial society’s obsession with economic growth and the constant production of more and more goods regardless of other consequences. He wrote favorably of a “Buddhist-economics” approach that would reflect the belief that “the essence of civilization [lies] not in a multiplication of wants, but in the purification of human character.” He was also a pioneer in having solar panels placed on the roof of his house. Although he eventually converted to Catholicism and came to believe that for life we require more than just reason and science, he insisted that “faith is not in conflict with reason, nor is it a substitute for reason” (A Guide for the Perplexed,1977). After his death, Schumacher Societies were established in Britain, the USA, and a few other countries, and today global warming is one of their chief concerns.

Like Schumacher, many people of various religions have concluded that “faith is not in conflict with reason, nor is it a substitute for reason.” Such individuals have attempted to be open to the demands of reason and science and have recognized the strong likelihood of human-caused global warming. So too have some conservatives like New York Times columnist David Brooks and some Republican politicians like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 2007 Al Gore and the IPCC received the Noble Peace Prize for their efforts in dealing with climate control. That same year Gore’s book The Assault on Reason was published. It offered some good advice for his fellow citizens: “Americans in both parties should insist on the reestablishment of respect for the rule of reason. The climate crisis, in particular, should cause us to reject and transcend ideologically based distortions of the best available scientific evidence.”