You’re getting warmer

Jeff Munroe Uncategorized 8 Comments

How did belief in climate change become political? 

 Have you noticed that generally people who vote Democratic believe in climate change and people who vote Republican don’t?  The devastation of super-storm Sandy a few days before the election led me to do my own informal research.  I simply asked people whom I knew were very conservative if storms like this made them wonder if the climate is indeed changing.

 The first person I asked is a farmer and he said, “No, the weather’s always unpredictable.”  Sounds like what a farmer should say, and being the all-around nice guy that I am, I didn’t engage him in a discussion about the difference between weather and the climate.  I could have, but I didn’t want to be in his face about it.

 Next I asked a pastor.  He said, “I’d need to see a lot more data to be convinced there is something special going on.”  Again, being the nice guy I am, I didn’t say, “Pull your head out of the sand. There is an enormous amount of data available.  Why not take to look at it?” 

 Finally, I asked an attorney, who said, “No, I don’t believe any of that for a minute.”  As I was standing mute (being the nice guy that I am), a woman who teaches science overheard our conversation and challenged the attorney.  “You cannot deny it,” she said, as he continued to deny it.  “There is climate change happening.” Then she softened the blow by saying, “What is debatable is whether or not this is something man-made or part of the planet’s normal cycles.”  Nice guy that I am, I didn’t engage her by saying that history has shown that the climate responds to different influences and this time we are the influence.

 As you can see, I don’t like to argue with my friends. I’d much rather take them on anonymously here. (I’ll write another blog someday about the issues raised by this behavior.)  And really, the question that fascinates me is not if climate change is happening (which isn’t a question), but why so many conservatives refuse to believe in it.

 On the surface one may suspect the answer may lie in the general dislike of Al Gore, but the fact is hardly anyone remembers Al Gore anymore.  I have a Gore-less theory.  Accepting the evidence that the greenhouse effect warming the planet is caused by the human consumption of fossil fuels leads to government actions conservatives don’t want to be party to.  Regulations and taxes will be created to slow fossil fuel consumption — auto companies will be forced to create cars with better gas mileage and gas taxes will be raised to discourage driving gas-powered cars. This is the sort of thing conservatives choke on: the double whammy of higher taxes and government interference in free markets. 

 If I’ve got this right, it’s the fear of the consequences of belief that causes the political divide. While many conservatives deny the reality of climate change, those in the Northeast who now find themselves riding out the “storm of the century” every year or so, are becoming believers.  And a few of us in Michigan enjoying a 62 degree Thanksgiving Day also wondered what was happening.  For those looking for non-anecdotal evidence, try this link to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration.  This recently-passed October was the fifth warmest on record and the 332nd consecutive month of above-average temperatures.  That means that it’s been warmer than average every month since 1985.  Neither of my children, who were born in 1987 and 1989, has been alive in a month cooler than normal. 

 Sadly, the politicization of climate change prevents us from having rational, unemotional conversations about this issue.  We don’t seem to have the skills necessary to talk in our fragmented political environment. Both sides are at fault, but the amount of conservative fear since the moment the networks called Ohio to Obama has been especially repulsive.  Did you hear about the 200,000 petition signatures collected in Texas to secede from the union following the election?  Often these fears are expressed through apocalyptic fantasies that I find difficult to take seriously. (Obama calling out UN troops to invade Lubbock?) At the same time, our children and grandchildren are inheriting a warming planet with apocalyptical seeds already sprouting.  We all should be very, very afraid of that.

Comments 8

  1. I think you're right on, Jeff. Makes a lot of sense. To admit to climate change implies the kind of governmental actions and regulations that many people do not want the government to do. Reminds me of a joke I heard once: "I don't see denial as a problem, I see it as a solution!"

  2. Yes Jeff, I have doubts about global warming being manufactured by man. Some simple reasons are the fact that carbon monoxide makes up a fraction of the atmosphere and man's activity makes up a fraction of that fraction. The methane produced by animals dwarfs that of fossil fuels. There are plenty of scientist who have raised serious questions about man's effect on the climate, only to be shouted down and/or ignored by the media and those who propose a government solution (cap and trade, etc) to this 'man made' issue. To further my suspicion on this matter is the fact that in recent years the term global warming has been replaced with climate change. So now whenever we have a large storm, a cooling trend, or a warming trend, we can point to any type of changes in the weather/climate to validate our need to raise taxes on people. Finally the trifecta in creating doubts in my mind is the fact that the climate on Mars mirrors that of the Earth. I have doubts that soccer moms driving Suburbans are causing climate change or global warming on Mars. I recently picked up a book on the topic that I intend to read to educate myself more on these issues.

  3. As a research scientist and professor with more than 35 years of experience in climate science, I think a major part of the problem lies in a phrase in your opening sentence: “belief in climate change”. Science, when done properly, is not about “belief”. The climate science community, based on more than a century of scientific endeavor, has come to the nearly unanimous conclusion that human activity is warming our planet. The choice then of the broader community, including Christians, is whether to believe the scientific community or not, not whether to believe in climate change. I draw this distinction to emphasize the difference between two broad perspectives, namely that the science is incorrect or that some segments of our society are willfully choosing to disbelieve the science and the scientists.

    I believe that the second perspective is the one that pervades the discussion in our country and is evident in the answers given by your friends. The reasons, however, for this willing disbelief are complex, intertwined, and often full of misconceptions. You correctly identify one of them as a fear of regulations and taxes but I think this is a shallow indication of a much deeper problem. Recognition of the human impact on current climate change identifies us, individually and corporately in the USA, as the major source of the problem and then demands that we do something to alleviate the potential harm that we are visiting on the poor of our world and future generations. This requires substantial changes in the way that we live and, although these changes may not be bad, we fear the unknown. Another reason is that the rise of American evangelical fundamentalism with its emphasis on a literal reading of the Bible has led to distrust between the fundamentalist community and much of the earth science and biology community over issues such as the age of the universe and of earth, the nature of geological processes, and the role of evolution in biological complexity. This distrust has spilled over into the issue of climate change leading to willingness to disbelief the science community on this issue without any real evidence to support that disbelief. Another related reason is a religious view that God will not permit such a change in Earth climate and therefore the scientists must be wrong.

    I agree with the opening sentence of your last paragraph and think it points to another reason. The proliferation of media outlets on TV and cable TV, radio and the internet means that our society has no shared basis for discussion. We choose to listen only to those who reinforce our opinions rather than those who might challenge them. Couple this with the rise of post-modern thought, which emphasizes the reality of our own experience rather than a common experience, and we have a situation in which too many people feel free to choose their own “facts”, not just opinions. I hope that we can find a way to have a serious discussion about the consequences of climate change and our responsibility to mitigate and adapt to it, but I fear that we will not have that discussion until the consequences are upon us and unable to be changed.

  4. Jeff,

    Have you read this article by Naomi Klein?


    Methane can't be ignored but the fact is that there is over 200 times the amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) than methane in the atmosphere (~390 ppm vs. ~ 1.9 ppm). It's really not even close. So even though methane is "stronger" than CO2, because the amount in the atmosphere is so small compared to CO2, the overall effect of methane on global warming is a fraction of that of CO2.

    The number of scientists who have raised questions about GW is not really at issue here. The issue is whether their "questions" are good ones. And overwhelmingly they aren't. But, for the record, there are NOT plenty of scientists who doubt that GW is caused by humans. The research I've seen puts the number at 97% of climate scientists accept it as a fact.

    Regarding the phrases "global warming" and "climate change," scientists use the terms to refer to different things. "Global warming" generally refers to average temperatures of the surface of the earth while "climate change" refers to long term change of Earth's climate. The later is obviously the broader category but it also predates the term "global warming." Why is the distinction important, though? Because, for one example, extra greenhouse gases not only cause the average surface temperature to increase (global warming) but they cause extra heat to be added to the oceans which can ice caps to melt or cause hurricanes to be stronger or more frequent (climate change). I recognize that the media may not understand this distinction and so people should be skeptical of the terms as used in popular culture, but these terms do have a purpose when used by scientists.

    Finally, the climate on Mars doesn't "mirror" the climate on Earth. I'm not exactly sure what you mean by this. Are you referring to the temporary temperature rise on Mars that was caused by a major dust storm and changing albedo?

  5. Jeff,

    One question. What do you think has changed since the 1980's? Reagan had no problem interfering with the market in order to do something about the ozone layer by signing the Montreal Protocol. What is it about conservatives today that reject what Reagan did in the late 80's?

  6. Mr. Barnett offers me the opportunity to comment on the problem of choosing to confuse opinion and fact. It is true that carbon dioxide (not monoxide) is a minor constituent of the atmosphere. That by itself is not a reason to conclude that it has no effect. Atmospheric scientists have understood and appreciated the role of carbon dioxide in warming the surface of Earth for more than 150 years. Human activity is increasing the abundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which we know from multiple lines of evidence. Methane is a contributor to the greenhouse gas increase but is a minor player compared to carbon dioxide due to concentrations and molecular lifetime in the atmosphere. Raising suspicions about terminology changes and possible tax raises do not address the science; they simply exhibit willingness to disbelief the science because belief has consequences. Mars is not warming as far as we know and the “evidence” for Martian warming simply confuses an annual cycle of the Martian climate with long term change.

    I appreciate the fact that Mr. Barnett intends to education himself on this subject. I encourage him to educate himself and then address these science issues. I also hope that he bought a book that challenges his opinions, rather than simply plays to them. I can suggest the 2012 Creation Stewardship Task Force Report, available for download on the web page of the Christian Reformed Church, or the book entitled “A Climate for Change” by Katherine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley.

  7. First of all, I love it that readers of The 12 are about 785 times smarter than me. I am not a scientist and didn't want to wade too deep into the science of this – I'm grateful for the scientists who have. I wrote because of my observation that climate change has become highly politicized. To Brad's question of what has changed since the time of Ronald Reagan — I don't fully know, but something has indeed changed. I had not seen the article Brad linked to before now, but the author uses a word that is helpful for understanding what has happened — "identity." To suggest belief in climate change now feels like an attack on someone's identity. I find that a strange reaction to a problem that could desolate our planet. Imagine this scenario – we discover an asteroid is on a collision course with the earth. 97% of the earth's astronomers agree that the asteroid will hit and 3% are skeptical. Who would we listen to? Wouldn't common sense dictate we do what we could about the asteroid? Wouldn't we expect the governments of the world to work together on this?

  8. Jeff –

    You rock for posting about this! As a high school science teacher, I have the opportunity to hear what a lot of parents have to say about climate change … through their parroting high school children, and there are often many misguided thoughts.

    Science and heaps of data aside, I just think – the natural world is AWESOME. Wouldn't I want to do anything I could to keep it as awesome as possible for as long as possible? Sure, I live in a heated house and buy food from the store and fly on planes and drive a car, but I've also learned that every bit counts too. Every car ride turned into a bike/walk, every degree our heat can turn down during the day/night, every piece of land we don't clear cut, but instead plant trees – those little things add up. If more people cared about the little things, who knows – we might not even have dip into the feared arenas of higher taxes and government interventions.

    Again – thanks for your post. More Christians should be having these discussions and caring about our beautiful planet!

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