GELFAND’S WORLD--It's easy to allow oneself to become a little cynical, and to blame global warming denialism on purely mercenary motives. After all, if you are a consumer, it's more convenient to buy gasoline at two dollars a gallon than at four or five dollars. If you are the oil companies, it's profitable to sell three or four hundred million gallons of gasoline per day . These simple facts could plausibly explain motives for some of the warming deniers. It's the who benefits question brought to life.
Oil companies do well when allowed to buy oil cheap and sell as much gasoline as they can. But this isn't the whole story. There is a deeper problem which involves the clash of ideology with reality.
Let's start with the understanding that the major part of the science is essentially settled. The level of carbon dioxide has been building up in the atmosphere for decades. There is no doubt about this at all. We also know that the absorption spectrum of CO2 causes the retention of solar heating near the earth's surface and in its oceans.
The rest of the argument involves the question as to whether we will be incredibly lucky, through some combination of the oceans being able to hold CO2 better than we might expect, or the tundra not releasing its own gases as early as it might. So far, we don't seem to be having that luck, but there are lots of variables in the calculus of global climate.
For some reason, the right wing in American politics has embraced a stance of opposition to the very thought of talking about approaches to global warming. When you listen to their arguments and think carefully about what they are saying, you ought to conclude that denialism is a case of logical fallacies brought on by ideological rigidity.
Here is the crux of the problem. CO2 is present throughout the earth's atmosphere and its oceans. Every source of CO2 emissions adds to the planetary burden. The coal-fired power plants in China and the automobiles of Los Angeles all add CO2 emissions into the air. Once a molecule of CO2 is in the atmosphere, it doesn't matter where it came from. The load of CO2 in the atmosphere gets mixed evenly over the face of the earth, in the same way that adding a teaspoon of food coloring into a bowl of cake batter and stirring it up results in a uniformly tinted bowl of batter. We are all adding CO2 to the air and it mixes throughout the atmosphere.
That means that an effective treatment for our global warming problem requires a worldwide reduction in CO2 emissions. It would not seem fair to put the entire load of reducing emissions on the United States, or even on the U.S. and western Europe. Together, we generate a substantial fraction of the world's CO2 emissions, but there are lots of other countries that are also contributing a pretty big share.
Fairness implies that all of the nations and peoples of the world should take joint responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions. That, I think, is the crux of the political movement that has poisoned reasonable discourse in this country. Simply put, there are a lot of people who oppose the United States giving over any of its independence to a multinational authority which could give us orders -- even if such orders could prevent a global climate catastrophe.
The right wing ideology opposes a supranational authority to which we would cede power, and the climate denialists work back from that fear of a worldwide authority. The easiest way for them to combat such an idea is to deny the underlying assumption. If there is no global warming, then we don't have to do anything about it. The fact that this is a dangerous way to treat a grim possibility seems to be a taboo topic in right wing American politics.
Global warming implies the need to do something, which implies the need to do something on the worldwide level, which holds the threat of some American administration signing on to a treaty to reduce emissions by legal sanctions. It's easier just to cover your ears and sing la la la I can't hear you loudly enough to drown out the words of the scientifically literate.
We might consider a less fallacious approach to the topic.
The idea that we ought to be fighting global warming all over the world is a simple matter of physics and math rather than politics. Socialist and capitalist countries burn fuel. Dictatorships burn fuel. The point I would like to make to the American right wing is that it shouldn't matter to us. The politics of the country of origin don't make a difference in the climatic problem, because a molecule of CO2 won't be different because it came from a country with The Peoples' Republic in its name.
We have to confront global warming from a broad perspective, namely as the entire population of humans living on this planet. It's that simple.
I can understand how a lot of right wingers don't like this kind of logic. It implies that we engage in at least one of two possible approaches.
The first approach is that the nations of the world negotiate among themselves, and out of these negotiations, individual countries commit to reductions in CO2 emissions. Perhaps this might be possible. The difficulty lies in the fact that several generations of Americans grew up under a Cold War in which neither side trusted the other, and both sides blamed each other for all possible ills. It took a quarter of a century to begin to make some headway in something as obvious as nuclear weapons control, even though the world lived in the fear of a major nuclear war.
Those attitudes of distrust continue today. It's just that we have transferred our distrust to countries like Iran and China, with Russia making its own comeback in the Cold War sweepstakes.
The net result is that a voluntary, international effort is hard to accomplish. We've had such efforts in smaller spheres, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but NATO has generally been careful about staying away from economic infighting. Voluntary cooperation is slow and not always fair to all parties.
The global warming deniers recognize right off that we haven't always gotten a fair shake when it comes to international trade. The protectionism of the east Asian countries is legendary, even if we give it a more polite sounding name like nontariff trade barriers.
Try putting yourself in the shoes of one of our more conservative folks, complete with a dose of xenophobia. Add an element of right wing conservatism that has played an unhealthy role in our political discourse -- the fear of being dictated to by some international organization such as the UN. There were widespread political movements that used to put up billboards saying Get the U.S. out of the UN.
Take this same old fear of losing sovereignty that was expressed by the John Birch Society and its cousins, and apply it to the global warming question. The results are obvious -- avoid international entanglements.
When you think about it, the denialist approach seems a little hysterical. If foreign entanglements and loss of sovereignty are what concern you, you might try to find an approach that works chemically and still preserves your country's internal political and economic structure. We can reduce carbon emissions under our capitalist structure. Admittedly it could cost quite a bit, particularly in the early going. But we have an awful lot to win by using this approach, such as preserving coastal lands that will otherwise be flooded.
The socialist countries and dictatorships should be able to understand the physics as well as we do. The people of low lying coastlines of southern Asia should be strong proponents of preventing the predictable rise in sea level. Capitalists and social Democrats in Europe have an even stronger reason to support a global warming fix, because their entire climate system depends on the Gulf Stream, and under the wrong conditions, it could fail.
What is absolutely necessary is that the grownups prevail. A large number of people, including social conservatives in this country, have to recognize that the science is fairly convincing, which means that we run a substantial risk of long-term climate instability and all that comes with it. We can approach the problem from a number of different angles, capitalist and socialist alike. What would be wrong would be for the humans of this planet to continue to engage in widespread destruction of habitats and fisheries just because we don't agree on our internal economic systems.
There has been a slight bit of movement in conservative thought regarding global warming. At least some political candidates have backed off from the "there's no global warming" argument, and are now arguing that proposed fixes are overly expensive. That at least is a bit of progress, in that total denial over the existence of global warming is no longer in favor with all such candidates. To borrow the old joke, we're no longer arguing the principle, we're just haggling over the price.
Elsewhere: The Latest Trump Controversy
Donald Trump has been castigated for his response to a question in one of his campaign rallies. Trump took a few days, and then replied that he is not obligated to defend the president when somebody else attacks him.
That might be true at some level -- Trump is not obligated to respond to every newspaper editorial or even to debating points made by his primary opponents -- but this was Trump's rally, he invited questions, and it is his answer that came under scrutiny. It's perfectly legitimate for the press and other candidates to consider and evaluate Trump's reply to the question.
The record shows that Trump played along with the anti-Muslim bigotry that was on display, and that he continued his attacks on the president's heritage. In this case, Trump was intellectually obligated to defend the president, at least if he wants to be treated as a serious thinker.
The Exchange that Should be Considered a Scandal
Near the end of the Reagan Library presidential debate, Trump was asked about his views on vaccination. He was joined in the discussion by the two doctors, Carson and Paul. Unfortunately, Trump made clear his view that vaccination, in some circumstances, leads to mental impairment. He referred to the child of friends of his. This is a classical logical fallacy, in that most children are vaccinated early in life, and some children will develop mental issues such as autism, which also comes early in life. A huge amount of research shows that there is no causative relationship, any more than there is a causative relationship between feeding a baby strained peas (which also comes early in life) and the development of autism. Trump has fallen for an old, unscientific argument, and the fact that he can't learn from real science is indicative of his mindset. What was more disappointing was that the two doctors explained why vaccination is important, but played along with the anti-vaccination trope to a certain extent.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vol 13 Issue 77
Pub: Sep 22, 2015