Stating the obvious
Mitt Romney, arguably the leading Republican candidate for president of the US in the 2012 election, recently diminished his prospects by declaring he believes the earth is warming.
To most scientists, such a statement would be innocuous, and an accurate assessment of current understanding. But to a large fraction of the United States Republican Party, this is an unacceptable position – ranking up there with gay marriage, gun control and abortion rights.
Anthropogenic climate change has become a litmus test for Republicans in the US. If you want to appeal to the hard core of the party – those whom you need in order to obtain the party’s nomination – you cannot acknowledge what almost every national science academy and scientific organisation has accepted for years. In fact, many other prominent Republicans, sensing the winds of retribution, have already back-tracked on whatever previous statements they may have made, if they contained even a whiff of climate reality. Given the importance of getting the US on board to obtain an international agreement on controlling greenhouse gases, this dismissal is sad and alarming.
Climate scientists on the frontlines of this battle have suffered from the political atmosphere. The idea has been promoted that climate science is a worthless charade, where data is manipulated to obtain a politically motivated result. Scientists have been abused on blogs and emails and some have even been threatened. A leading Republican Senator asked the Justice Department to investigate 17 climate scientists (myself included) for committing fraud and other crimes. How have we arrived at this sorry state?
In order to understand the state of play, one has to recognise that the issue of global warming is being manipulated by a group of individuals, businesses and organisations that have financial interests in making sure that the US does not enact any legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions. At the extreme, these groups believe in market fundamentalism – that free markets, stripped of constraints, will take care of any problems we face. To bolster this strategy, they provide financial support to organisations which promote ideas such as global warming is a hoax and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports are full of errors. They also flood the electoral system with money, to ensure that like-minded right wing politicians are elected to congress. These politicians then dutifully hold hearings, inviting hand-picked scientists (often with minimal qualifications in climate science) to provide testimony to sow the seeds of doubt about the reality of global warming. The political objectives of these hearings are rarely discussed by the media. The public just hears that more scientists disagree about an issue they find hard to deal with (which it is), so they conclude that if scientists can’t agree, why should they support legislation to control emissions? In this way, the cynical, but effective, strategy runs its course, and the US sits on its hands while atmospheric CO2 concentrations approach dangerous levels.
If climate scientists were indeed working together to manipulate data and create a fictitious scenario, that would require a remarkable feat of coordination and a sense of common purpose. What could the motivation of this cohort be? The answer was given to me by Congressman James Sensenbrenner (now vice-chairman of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology). This high-ranking Republican explained that the Kyoto Protocol was a conspiracy by developing nations to cripple the US economy. Since these developing countries could not compete on a level playing field with the US they had devised the Kyoto Treaty to tilt things in their direction, and climate scientists were complicit in this strategy.
Which brings me back to Mitt Romney. The Republican Party in the US is now in thrall to the extreme right wing, which is in turn financed and coached by those with the
“I believe that climate change is occurring — the reduction in the size of global ice caps is hard to ignore. I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
financial muscle to promote their agendas. To obtain the backing of these groups you have to toe the line and speak the words their dogma requires: global warming is not happening, perhaps even a hoax; whatever warming has occurred is just a natural oscillation; even if humans had something to do with it, it’s not a big deal and we can adapt to it. And, besides, we can’t afford to control greenhouse gases as such action will result in massive job losses. For a politician seeking the party’s nomination for president, it is a dangerous strategy to cross the line on this topic.
To the ideologues who have invested millions to support their political factotums in the US Congress, their money has been well spent, as legislation to control greenhouse gases has virtually disappeared from the congressional agenda. But, not content with that success, they have now drawn a line in the sand for those seeking office; global warming is off limits entirely.
Meanwhile the rest of the world has recognised the reality of global warming and acknowledged the dangers that it poses. Although taking steps to address the matter is difficult, many countries have embraced the opportunity to reduce energy consumption, implement conservation strategies and promote technologies that involve energy production from non carbon-based fuels. Politicians who embrace these strategies represent the future. Those who don’t will simply become footnotes in history. Romney made the right decision – on this topic, at least.