A Congress that Disdains Science
America, the world’s superpower, is becoming a country disconnected from evidence and reality with the Congress now controlled by a Republican Party that has assigned anti-science zealots to run committees responsible for addressing environmental dangers including the threat from global warming, writes Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
On Jan. 17, the New York Times reported on a scientific study that showed 2014 to be “the hottest on earth since record-keeping began in 1880.” The report went on to explain that “records were set across large areas of every inhabited continent.”
Particularly hard hit in 2014 was the western portion of the United States: Alaska, Arizona, California and Nevada all experienced “extreme warmth.” Temperatures in parts of California “sometimes [ran] 10 to 15 degrees above normal for the season.”
The vast majority of climatologists believe that this warming will go on for a very long time and that it presents “profound long-term risks to civilization and nature.” Also, most scientists agree, global warming is caused by human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels.
According to Michael E. Mann, a climatologist at Penn State University, “it is exceptionally unlikely that we would be witnessing a record year of warmth, during a record-warm decade, during a several decades-long period of warmth that appears to be unrivaled for more than a thousand years, were it not for the rising levels of planet-warming gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels.”
This consensus has led the scientific community to the conclusion that “climate change is perhaps the major challenge of our generation.”
Well, that is the judgment of scientists who investigate matters of fact in the most objective way they know. Unfortunately, only a small number of them become convincing public spokespeople for their positions, and fewer still leave their day jobs to become politicians.
Meanwhile, when it comes to global warming, the investigative talents of the latest crop of Republican congressional leaders is anything but objective. Of course, that does not stop many of them from loudly voicing their opinions – opinions now coupled to the wielding of power. Consider the following short list:
–Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, a member of the House Science Committee, has recently declared “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” As for human contributions to global warming, Broun considers it a “hoax” perpetrated by the scientific community.
–Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is now chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Inhofe has written a book entitled The Greatest Hoax, which presents climate change and global warming as a conspiracy of atheists and scientists who would deny the supremacy of Inhofe’s version of God.
He is upset at the “arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate.” Inhofe’s starting point for the congressional debate on climate change is “God is still up there” and in charge.
–Roger Wicker of Mississippi is the ranking member of the New Economy subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Wicker insists that climate change is just a disputed hypothesis and not the threat the vast majority of scientists present it as. He suspects the scientific position is part of a “war on coal” – that is, an effort to repudiate the use of fossil fuel.
–Arkansas Sen. John Boozman is about to take over the Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. He really doesn’t believe that climate change is due to human activity. Rather, he speculates that it is just another natural “cycle that happens throughout the years, throughout the ages.” This is a very popular point of view in the “coal-fired” state of Arkansas.
–Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions will now head the Senate Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee. He doesn’t believe that global warming is a problem and has asserted that he can interpret the data on climate change better than most climatologists. He does so by carefully selecting from the interpretations of the very small number of scientists who happen to agree with his point of view.
The Observational Context
Citizen views on climate change and global warming divide along the lines of conservative and liberal self-identification. Thus, according to a Pew Research poll conducted in June 2014, over 70 percent of those who identify themselves as conservatives either do not believe in global warming or don’t consider it a danger, nor do they believe that human activity is a serious contributing factor. Finally, many of these self-described conservatives believe that the U.S. has “gone too far in efforts to protect the environment.”
Why do conservative Americans feel this way? There are several factors:
Many of them are very religious. An outlook of Christian fundamentalism pervades large sections of the country and, at least since the time of the Reagan presidency, has become a factor in U.S. politics.
That is why men like Broun and Inhofe are where they are. They, and others like them, are often from what used to be known as the Bible Belt, a range of southern U.S. states from Oklahoma to Virginia. This is a stronghold of Southern Baptist and other basically fundamentalist sects.
Similar Christian sects are scattered throughout the north, central and western parts of the country. It is hard for those who adhere to these sects to see the sciences that touch on both human evolutionary processes and those of nature (such as global warming) objectively because they clash with biblical tenets.
This leads most religious conservatives to reject scientifically accepted criteria for truth. Science is a process that seeks to approximate what is true through the positing of testable hypotheses. Scientific beliefs must be supported by observable and replicated data.
In turn, new data can alter one’s perspective on established hypotheses and even overthrow them. It is an ongoing process and it has proven so powerful a tool that modern civilization’s physical attributes rest on its achievements.
On the other hand, religion is a form of ideology that is based on absolute positions that are not testable. Questioning these sorts of “truths” equates to a crisis of faith, and that is often looked upon as a personal failure or giving in to the temptations of some evil spirit. Questioning also alienates you from your community.
To this we may add the following: particularly in the United States, there is a surprisingly strong anti-intellectual sentiment that prejudices many people against those who are educated, whom they label bookworms, eggheads, nerds, brainiacs, geeks, know-it-alls, etc. The fact that American English has so many derogatory terms for those who are actively involved in intellectual pursuits is an indicator of this anti-intellectualism.
Therefore, if you have people that you already disparage because of their intellect, telling you things that question your faith, you are likely to go out of your way to oppose them, and “their” truth be damned.
Yet another kind of dismissive response is likely to come from those who have an economic stake in the pursuits contributing to global warming. In their case profits stand in for faith. The two groups come together when the business people fund the campaigns of the politicians who, for religious reasons, do not believe in climate change.
Finally there is the almost natural tendency for all of us — conservative, religious or otherwise — to favor the local. By this I mean to favor what serves one’s local interests here and now. If you are from the “coal-fired” state of Oklahoma, you are most likely to see anything that would hurt the coal industry as something that will economically hurt you, and do so with certainty.
Meanwhile, the future will be thought of as full of maybes. This will lead most people to hesitate to make major sacrifices today just because someone they may not particularly respect claims that, if they don’t, greater sacrifices will have to be made in the next hundred years.
So here is the problem: on the one hand, it is a 95 percent certainty that human activity is causing global warming and it is certain that the effects, even in the near future, will be measurably negative (more damaging hurricanes, droughts, rising ocean levels, killer heat waves, etc.), getting increasingly severe as time goes on.
On the other, too many Americans either don’t believe this or are too wrapped up in the present to care. However, the worst of it is that as voters they are putting into positions of power politicians who are willing to block any public policy that may slow, much less reverse the process. It makes little difference if the voters have more than one reason for voting for these politicians. The result for the environment is going to be the same.
We should keep in mind that the dispute over global warming is different from those over evolution or the age of the earth. If some American voters want to elect people who believe that the world is only 9,000 years old and that man is the product of a God looking for a supervisor for the Garden of Eden, they can do so without necessarily accelerating the melting of the polar ice caps. However, putting into office those who deny global warming and the human contribution to it is a catastrophe in the making.
The United States is a country whose prosperity and lifestyle depends strongly on scientific processes. The industrialists whose businesses drive climate change know this yet they and their stockholders are hopelessly fixated on today’s profits.
It is less certain whether the large and growing number of religious fundamentalists make the connection. For them faith is stronger than reason and, in the end, “God is up there” and in control.
And for the rest of us? We are left with two choices: organize to get the fundamentalists and other climate change deniers out of positions of power, or sit back and relax for apres moi le deluge.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest;ã€€America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.