Anti-science conservatives must be stopped

That’s the title of my new article in Salon. I had proposed “The political fight of the century,” but the editors wanted a stronger headline — and subhead:

Americans must not allow global warming deniers to block the policies needed to avert catastrophic climate change. Our future is at stake.


Now that the relevant science is settled — namely that failing to quickly embrace strong greenhouse gas reduction policies would be the greatest act of self-destruction in human history — the fight to save a livable climate will indeed be the greatest political fight of our times. As the piece concludes:

Conservatives can’t stop the impending catastrophe with anti-government rhetoric. But they can prevent progressives and moderates from stopping it by blocking aggressive climate legislation. Progressives and moderates will need all their political skill and tenacity to overcome the obstructionism of the anti-science, anti-technology conservatives. This is unlike any previous political fight; it is a fight to save the health and well-being of the next 50 generations, a fight to preserve our way of life. Losing is not an option

The article summarizes the current state of conservative anti-science intransigence on climate, which I have discussed at great length (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us” and “Krauthammer, Part 2: The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science“.) I then describe how I think the next couple of decades will play out, assuming most conservatives continue to press what they are convinced is a rhetorical and political advantage in opposing strong climate legislation:

Conservatives can probably enjoy another decade or so of disregarding the climate science and demagoguing climate legislation. Yes, the weather will become increasingly extreme as we slip closer to permanent changes in the climate. But most of what happens next decade will just be a more frequent and intense version of what happened in the last decade.

Unfortunately for the planet, the next decade is pretty much going to be the last one to reverse course the “easy” way. By easy, I mean deploying clean energy technology at an aggressive pace with a negligible net economic cost, 0.1 percent of GDP per year or less. It’s a strategy that can be deployed largely by the private sector with the help of well-designed government programs and regulatory reforms.

If conservatives block serious action until the 2020s, then the nation and the world will begin a desperate race to avert catastrophe. By then, the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and concentrations will be so high that the relatively easy market-based technology strategy will not be able to stop us from crossing the point of no return, when major amplifying feedbacks kick in and undermine all efforts to avert catastrophe. The most important feedback is probably the melting of the permafrost and tundra, which could release 1,000 billion tons of carbon — more than the entire atmosphere contains today — much of it in the form of methane, which is 20 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

I call the period from 2025 to 2050 “Planetary Purgatory.” Assuming conservatives block a major reversal in U.S. policies in the next decade, by the 2020s, everyone will know the grim fate that awaits the next 50 generations, including widespread desertification, the loss of the inland glaciers that provide water to a billion people, sea level rise of 80 feet or more at a rate that might hit 6 inches a decade and extinction of most species on land and sea. Maybe then, as the miseries of global warming overtake everyday life, a backlash against conservatives will begin to rise, one that will ultimately relegate that political movement to the dustbin of history

Because if we don’t turn the political tide against James Inhofe and his gang of deniers now, we will be forced to act out of desperation soon enough. If we delay serious action to 2025, we would then need to cut global emissions by 75 percent in a quarter century or less. And that would require a massive, sustained government intervention into every aspect of our lives on a scale that far surpasses what this country did during World War II. I can’t see how the conservative movement as it now exists could possibly survive having been responsible for ushering in decades if not centuries of untold misery and intrusive government.

You can read the whole piece here.

22 Responses to Anti-science conservatives must be stopped

  1. Lou Grinzo says:

    Let me make a prediction: The response to this article by the deniers will make liberal (no pun intended) use of the word “alarmist” (or synonyms thereof), and they will try to paint Joe as an envirowacko who is willing to preserve ever last chip of ice floating in the Arctic at any human or economic cost, etc.

    Frankly, at this point that kind of Rovian garbage is all they have left. They’ve reached the point in the cowboy movie where one guy runs out of bullets in a shootout and throws his empty gun. The problem is, even that desperate action will cause further delay, which they see as a win. They prefer money and empty ideology over science and preventing a catastrophe every time.

    If anything, I think Joe is insufficiently alarmist. I doubt we have another couple of decades to twiddle our thumbs, given how much quicker the climate is actually changing than we thought. We simply don’t know for sure where the tipping points are or how close we are to them, but the more evidence we gather, the more we have to keep moving the goalposts as we discover that we’re even closer to a runaway state than we thought.

  2. paulm says:

    I agree we don’t have a decade. In fact we probably have gone past the tipping point for maintaining the status quo of the current global civilized society (and thats just with respect to climate change). We have reputable scientist saying we need to get on track in the next 2yrs or else kaboom! Well sit back and think, that is crazy. They haven’t got the models down to a 2yr resolution. Basically they are saying that we have missed the boat.

    Realistically we are not going to get below 500 ppm – the technical feasibility isn’t there for the wedges described, politically we are way off the mark, socially we have a couple years to go. The thing is with the economic down turn (collapse) waiting in the wings all three areas are going to find it harder (impossible) to meet the mark.

    There is only one path forward though and that is to strive for a sustainable society/world, anything else is self destructive and primitive.

  3. paulm says:

    go Joe go – just saw you on CNN telling it like it is on Fuel Cells.

  4. Greg N says:

    When they look back at our age, I think they’ll see 1998 to 2008 as the wasted decade – the science was agreed, the basic course of action was agreed, the consequence of failure to act was agreed.

    Yet all we did was deny, delay and dither. And announce vague plans for future years while doing nothing concrete in present years.

    If we actually do things in 2008 to 2018 – instead of just talk and set up planning committees – then I’m reasonably optimistic.

  5. paulm says:

    So many seems to be conservative. Have a look at the depressing majority of the blog reactions to the Independent’s article on an ice free North Pole.

    The positive side is at least its generating the reaction. A couple of years ago it wouldn’t have been noticed. I guess the general public need some time to absorb the science and how bad it really going to get.

  6. Brewster says:

    Paulm. reading the Blog you linked (and others) is very depressing.

    As you say, there seems to be more reation, but I see no increase in the favourable/unfavourable ratio from 5 years ago.

    If anything, the louder the pro’s scream, the more the anti’s dig in their heels, citing more and more half baked studies and op-eds, and still recycling stuff that was debunked even before I got interested in the early 2000’s.

  7. hapa says:

    i’m working on an “they’re always densest before it dawns on them” assumption. avenues to prosperity with the current equipment are shrinking. distributed energy generation reduces the power of foreign, government, and corporate interests in a person’s life. petroleum-derived fuels are a money pit with nasty side effects. coal ruins land an watersheds — our greatest assets — and its pollution is a giant fist to the gut of our future. energy efficiency saves money without reducing quality of life. these are popular gains to be made and they will divide the wheat from the status-quo-apologist chaff on the less technocratic side of the fence and it’s already well underway. deep-red republicans who keep blocking renewables are risking their careers in public office.

  8. hisnamewas says:

    just read the blog and seems like everyone who doesn’t believe in global warming seems to think that it is a giant conspiracy that the science world is out to get them. i think that is ridiculous. if there is any conspiracy it has to be coming from the agw folks such as coal and oil companies. i am really worried about the future if this is the way ppl are reacting to peer reviewed journal articles.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Greg N — Yes, although I’d say two wasted decades. Since Dr. Hansen’s first Senate appearance.

  10. Earl Killian says:

    David, three decades if you count from the National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences reports (Energy and Climate 1977, the Jason report The long-term impact of atmospheric carbon dioxide on climate 1979, Charney Report 1979, National Academy of Sciences Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee Changing Climate 1983). Unfortunately Reagan took office in 1981 and the progress of the 1960s and 1970s was killed by know-nothings.

  11. Yes, global warming is a simple conservation of (invisible, gaseous) mass problem…it’s high school physics/chemistry. Unfortunately people want to believe in magic, a lot of which is about defying our expectations about the conservation of mass. So, denial of AGW is a kind of magical thinking. We have a whole industries that support magical thinking, so AGW deniers do have wind (hot air) at their back but this is a wind that can blow itself out.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — RIght. Three+.

  13. Conservatives just want government to stay out of climate issues – hence not interfere with their brand of unbridled capitalism.

    I would hope that any enlightened capitalist would welcome government actions that are derived from both science and smart public policy. For a stable world is the best market for any capitalist.

    Smart government intervention in global warming protection helps avoid the breakdown of the state into lawless chaos; something any state deserves if it fails to protect its citizens. All the more so for citizens of the planet.

    Protestations otherwise seem shrill and dangerous.

  14. Greg N says:

    The reason I feel 1998-2008 was the wasted decade, is that 1998 was such an awful climate year around the world for millions of people (for the reasons we all know about). 1998 should have been a “wake up year”, there being no further genuine dispute about the likely course of global heating in the 21st Century.

    There’s often an assumption that worsening extreme weather in the coming years will be a “wake up”. My concern is that the response to a future extreme year will just be another replay of 1998 – i.e. BAU economics and energy policies continue without a hitch.

    Why should extreme weather events finally change policy, when they didn’t in 1998?

  15. John Hartz says:

    It is imperative that environmentalists who have a deep and abiding concern about AGW post well-reasoned rebuttals to the anti-AGW postings that appear almost instantaneously after article about climate change are posted by the mainstream media and by other websites. (For example, see the postings about this matter on today’s GristBlog summary of this article.) The anti-AGW crowd is well financed and extremely active. The primary goal is not to win debates, but rather to make sure that casual readers of the posts see that there are people like you and me who care deeply about the fate of our children, grandchildren and future generations.

  16. Donald B says:

    Maybe the deniers are so confident they would take up an offer: They put up some large amount of their net worth (let them try to find an insurance company to cover that amount) where if they are wrong, the value goes to a charity of Joe’s (or somegroup that opposes the deniers) choosing and it they are right, they get to choose a charity to recieve an equal amount from the global warming group. The decision could be in 15 years or 20 years, but my guess is that unless it was one year or so (so they could continue the obfuscation and refuse to agree that the decision was legitimate), they will not take it up. It would be nice if the amount could be made large enough to bankrupt them when they lose, but unless they tried to set the amount so high that GW advocates could not equal it, they will not risk much money.

  17. HumansFirst EarthSecond says:

    The science, and I use that term loosely, of global warming was never settled. The political science was settled, because that is all it is. It is pure, 100% alarmist BS. Day after day we hear from you more wacko predictions of tipping points, preposterous statements like …”global warming will lead to cannibalism, etc. You guys have lost all credibility…….you never had any to start with.

    And meanwhile the earth cools………lol.

  18. Dano says:

    I like the dipsh*t logic of the dipsh*t troll’s name: “it doesn’t matter if we have nowhere to live!! *heart!!!*”.

    This is the best they can do, folks: string together long-ago refuted talking points and strawmen. They have nothing else.



  19. BadgerSouth says:

    I’m old enough to remember how the tobacco industry fought tooth and nail against the medical and scientific community over the causal effect between cigarette smoking and cancer. It’s no secret that Big Oil, Big Coal, right wing-nuts like Rush Limbaugh, Libertarians, and others have used the tobacco industry’s tactics to cast doubt on the validity of what the scientific community has concluded about the causal effect between climate change and the release of greenhouse gases by mankind. Many Americans died because of Big Tobacco’s greed and selfishness. This time around, the stakes are much higher. For the sake of our children and future generations, we need to take action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate against the climate change consequences that have already been set in motion.

  20. BadgerSouth says:

    Memo to HumansFirst EarthSecond:

    1. Even the professional anti-AGW bloggers acknowledge that climate change is occuring. Your assertion that the “earth cools” is patently absurd.

    2. There is no Planet B for the human race.

    Have a great day!

  21. Phillip Huggan says:

    I can’t believe this report was released thirty years ago. I just figured out now what that initial group of scientists did, and what IPCC has yet to do, that Global Warming will be devastating for agri-yields. I can’t believe a member of the organization would side with R.Reagan and imperil the planet for trade purposes!! They should’ve gone public with the backstabbing as soon the Berlin Wall fell; other nations could’ve fought the good fight.
    And people called H.Clinton a bitch. Meanwhile Palin is going around telling everyone climate change is man-made. In Canada we have this S.Harper guy who is doing the same thing.
    I wonder what sort of infrastructures can be drafted to prevent this sort of advance warning from being ignored in the future, assuming Democrats and Liberals win the next elections. There will be many future threats that won’t be as forgiving, and we as a species are already on the cusp of failing climate change.
    R.Reagan ignored this warning for political purposes?! Was he losing his mind?