Saturday, March 06, 2010

        The Climate: It is a-changin’

In searching for the right metaphor to explain the crazed nature of politics at present in America, perhaps "climate change" comes the closest.  For at least the past two decades, we have been undergoing an accelerating process of 'heating' the atmosphere, driven in this case by powerful, underlying social, cultural, technological and economic changes which have unsettled the 'climate' mechanisms that usually moderate and modulate political expression and behavior.  

The consequences are even more rapid, unpredictable flows of energy producing unseasonable storms, unusual shifts in the deep currents of political organization, further melting of established structures--in general, increased overall instability and therefore mistrust in and reactions against systems, leaders, 'elites' and accepted understandings in general.  

This helps explain the wild swings in popular opinion ranging from the high of unrealistic 'hope' in 2008 which led to Obama's election, to the current low of disillusion and despair, scarcely a year later, when unreal expectations have been unfulfilled.   

The responses on the right, anti-evolution, anti-climate change, anti-science--and anti-historical, as the founders are now being portrayed as believers in a 'Christian' nation--all fall under the heading of "denial." Denying the realities of an increasingly globalized, wired, mediated, environmentally-challenged world in which the accepted truths: American dominance, economic growth, expectations for the future, economic and military 'security', cultural values, faith in traditional leaders are all crumbling.  

Thus the grasping for simple answers, the popularity of people like Palin, Beck, and others.  Are they really different from the Huey Longs, Dr. Townsends, Charles Lindberghs, Father Coughlins of the 30's, or the Free Silver and Single Taxers of the 1890's?  The question for us, however, --and increasingly for the planet as a whole---is whether the political system can adjust and stabilize again, as it did through Progressive and New Deal reforms, or whether, like the climate, we've passed the 450 point, after which there is no return from growing unpredictability and instability.

Les Adler for The Institute

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Climate change, meet Camelot

“It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.
The climate must be perfect all the year.

A law was made a distant moon ago here:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there’s a legal limit to the snow here
In Camelot.”

--Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederic Loewe

The Legislature of the State of South Dakota distinguished itself by passing an anti-climate change resolution--House Concurrent Resolution No. 1009--late last month,

No, the legislature did not follow King Arthur’s lead by attempting to stabilize the state’s climate by decree. Instead, it called for “the balanced teaching of global warming” in South Dakota’s public schools, borrowing the language and tactics of the ongoing campaign to force the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in America’s schools.

On a 36 to 20 vote, South Dakota’s House of Representatives urged the state’s schools to teach that global warming is a theory rather than a proven fact. Teachers are to impress on students that the significance and “interrelativity” of the “variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological [sic], thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics” that determine global weather patterns are “largely speculative”, and that the scientific investigation of global warming has been “complicated and prejudiced” by “political and philosophical viewpoints.”

The resolution concludes with a seemingly innocent statement urging that “all instruction on the theory of global warming be appropriate to the age and academic development of the student and to the prevailing classroom circumstances.” The phrase I’ve italicized is a coded way of warning teachers not to present climate change in a way that might anger students or parents who believe that climate change is a hoax hatched by the U.N. to frighten ordinary citizens, justify draconian laws and enrich greedy scientists. It’s similar to language advocated by the right-wing group Students for Academic Freedom in its “Academic Bill of Rights”, which has been used to attack and even sue college professors whose teaching goes against the beliefs of conservative students.

It’s all too easy to trivialize the South Dakota House Resolution and poke holes in the facts and reasoning advanced to support it. The resolution’s use of “astrological” instead of “astronomical”, the flawed list of anti-climate-change evidence it presents — that the earth has been cooling for the last eight years, that there is no evidence of warming in the troposphere, that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but “the gas of life”— and the argument that the existence of naturally driven climate change in the past rules out human-caused climate change today, makes for a document that’s hard to take seriously.

Even South Dakota’s senate seems to agree. They stripped out the most embarrassing verbiage before passing their own version of the resolution on 24 February.

Unfortunately, the resolution has to be taken seriously. It stands as the latest—but by no means the last--skirmish in a long and continuing battle for the minds as well as the hearts of America’s children. As reported by New Scientist, the Texas school board-- whose annual purchase of some 48 million textbooks allows it to determine what most of the nation’s children study—voted last March to require textbooks to question the existence of global warming, and, in an astonishing kowtow to “young-earth creationists”, deleted the 14-billion-year age of the universe from the science curriculum.

It’s not just climate change, evolution, or the age of the earth which are in the crosshairs in this battle, but science as a whole. The religious-conservative movement that helps elect creationist school board members across the country, State legislators like Resolution 1009’s author, Don Kopp, the 110 members of the United States Congress who win perfect ratings from ultraconservative groups, or Senator James Inhofe who now wants to file criminal charges against U.S. and British climate scientists, has a far more ambitious agenda—nothing less than to replace the pluralistic “secular humanism” that most people think has defined the United States since its inception with religious fundamentalism.

The movement dates at least to the 1980s, when the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition with the stated goal of advancing a Christian agenda nationwide through grassroots activism. This still growing movement has made it clear that it is determined to redefine America in the light of the “truth” that the nation was founded not on the basis of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but on fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They see the Bible as true and the wall of separation of church and state as a dangerous myth. Be it evolution, global climate change, or embryonic stem cell research, when science gets in the way, it will be attacked.

As reported in the New York Times, attacking climate change along with evolution may be a way to get around court rulings that so far have found that singling out evolution for so-called balanced presentation in textbooks and classes is clearly religiously motivated and violates the separation of church and state. By also targeting global warming, the age of the universe, or the origin of life, anti-evolutionists can claim that they are merely advocating academic freedom and fair play.

And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that the same politicians who seek the votes of true believers are often funded by corporations that are strongly motivated to keep pumping --and spilling-- crude, mining coal, or pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

At least in the United States, this is not a challenge to which scientists and those who recognize that science can only thrive in an environment that values facts and reason over Bible-based belief and God-given truth can remain indifferent or uninvolved. A war has been declared, and scientists and their supporters can no more wish it away than South Dakota’s legislators can resolve away global climate change.

Robert Adler
for the institute