Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tom Delay and “believing” in climate change

During a TV interview a couple days ago, former Republican congressional leader Tom Delay began an attack on John McCain’s lack of “conservative” credentials with the subject of climate change. Basically, he said the conservative position should be that “man is not the cause of climate change”. When pushed on the subject, he uttered the following line:

It is arrogance to suggest that man can affect climate change. There’s no science that supports such a notion.

Never mind the fact that Delay was forced to leave office because of ethical violations, or that he has a ghostwriter for his blog (ah, the rebellious independence of the blogsphere), or that he may be simply trying the blame women for climate change. It is worth listening carefully to his choice of words and emphasis.

Climate change activists tend to assume anyone who doubts or refutes the scientific evidence is motivated entirely by politics, by money, by ideology, or by all three. No doubt, that trifecta affects Delay’s thinking on the issue. This statement, however, makes it abundantly clear that those are not the only reasons his community dismisses the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change

Notice, Delay is not arguing that the climate doesn’t ever change. In his words and his tone, he is saying that the climate is far beyond the control of mere people, that it is controlled by other, grand forces. The arrogance of which he speaks is a belief that people can intervene on God’s turf.

Is this Delay's genuine belief? Or is it a clever talking point, a set of code words that tap into people’s pre-existing beliefs in order to cast doubt on evidence for climate change and the policy regulating greenhouse gas emission? That I can’t say. Either way, climate change communicators and activists dismiss his argument at their own peril.

As I argued in a recent essay (more here) the very notion that humans can affect the climate runs counter to thousands of years of belief that the sky is the domain of gods. Acceptance of human-induced climate change is a real paradigm shift. It is a mistake to assume people that doubt the scientific evidence are motivated only by greed or politics. If those of us communicating climate change to the public fail to address the fact that it can conflict with fundamental beliefs, we’ll fail as communicators.


Dan said...

The way I view this (as a non-climate scientist) is that we would be arrogant to believe we can affect the earth's climate in the long run (i.e. in terms of geological ages).

In the shorter term, we can change it - and the earth's feedback systems work to correct these changes. It may be that the corrections make life very difficult for humans.

EliRabett said...

My recommendation to anyone who believes that man cannot change the earth is to take an airplane ride and look down. Seriously

Simon Donner said...

Eli is touching on the earth-sky split I discuss in the Climatic Change article (albeit unintentionally!). Traditionally, we believe and rely on the fact that we rule the earth. But not the sky. Look down from the plane, and no one will doubt we can change the Earth. Look at eye level or up... you might get a different answer

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