Reprinted from To The Point Analyses
Part I -- Reality
On 17 January 2015 the New York Times reported on a scientific study that showed 2014 to be "the hottest on earth since record-keeping began in 1880." The report went on to explain that "records were set across large areas of every inhabited continent." Particularly hard hit in 2014 was the western portion of the United States: Alaska, Arizona, California and Nevada all experienced "extreme warmth." Temperatures in parts of California "sometimes [ran] 10 to 15 degrees above normal for the season."
The vast majority of climatologists believe that this warming will go on for a very long time and that it presents "profound long-term risks to civilization and nature." Also, most scientists agree, global warming is caused by human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels. According to Michael E. Mann, a climatologist at Penn State University, "it is exceptionally unlikely that we would be witnessing a record year of warmth, during a record-warm decade, during a several decades-long period of warmth that appears to be unrivaled for more than a thousand years, were it not for the rising levels of planet-warming gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels." This consensus has led the scientific community to the conclusion that "climate change is perhaps the major challenge of our generation."
Part II -- Republican Theology
Well, that is the judgement of scientists who investigate matters of fact in the most objective way they know. Unfortunately, only a small number of them become convincing public spokespeople for their positions, and fewer still leave their day jobs to become politicians. Meanwhile, when it comes to global warming, the investigative talents of the latest crop of Republican congressional leaders is anything but objective. Of course, that does not stop many of them from loudly voicing their opinions -- opinions now coupled to the wielding of power. Consider the following short list:
Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, a member of the House Science Committee, has recently declared "All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior." As for human contributions to global warming, Broun considers it a hoax" perpetrated by the scientific community.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma is now chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Inhofe has written a book entitled The Greatest Hoax, which presents climate change and global warming as a conspiracy of atheists and scientists who would deny the supremacy of Inhofe's version of God. He is upset at the "arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate." Inhofe's starting point for the congressional debate on climate change is "God is still up there" and in charge.
Roger Wicker of Mississippi is the ranking member of the New Economy subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Wicker insists that climate change is just a disputed hypothesis and not the threat the vast majority of scientists present it as. He suspects the scientific position is part of a "war on coal" -- that is, an effort to repudiate the use of fossil fuel.
Arkansas Senator John Boozman is about to take over the Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. He really doesn't believe that climate change is due to human activity. Rather, he speculates that it is just another natural "cycle that happens throughout the years, throughout the ages." This is a very popular point of view in the "coal-fired" state of Arkansas.
Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions will now head the Senate Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee. He doesn't believe that global warming is a problem and has asserted that he can interpret the data on climate change better than most climatologists. He does so by carefully selecting from the interpretations of the very small number of scientists who happen to agree with his point of view.
Part III -- The Observational Context
Citizen views on climate change and global warming divide along the lines of conservative and liberal self-identification. Thus according to a Pew Research poll conducted in June 2014, over 70 percent of those who identify themselves as conservatives either do not believe in global warming or don't consider it a danger, nor do they believe that human activity is a serious contributing factor. Finally, many of these self-described conservatives believe that the U.S. has "gone too far in efforts to protect the environment."
Why do conservative Americans feel this way? There are several factors:
Many of them are very religious. An outlook of Christian fundamentalism pervades large sections of the country and, at least since the time of the Reagan presidency, has become a factor in U.S. politics. That is why men like Broun and Inhofe are where they are. They, and others like them, are often from what used to be known as the Bible Belt, a range of southern U.S. states from Oklahoma to Virginia. This is a stronghold of Southern Baptist and other basically fundamentalist sects. Similar Christian sects are scattered throughout the north, central and western parts of the country. It is hard for those who adhere to these sects to see the sciences that touch on both human evolutionary processes and those of nature (such as global warming) objectively because they clash with biblical tenets.
This leads most religious conservatives to reject scientifically accepted criteria for truth. Science is a process that seeks to approximate what is true through the positing of testable hypotheses. Scientific beliefs must be supported by observable and replicated data. In turn, new data can alter one's perspective on established hypotheses and even overthrow them. It is an ongoing process and it has proven so powerful a tool that modern civilization's physical attributes rest on its achievements. On the other hand, religion is a form of ideology that is based on absolute positions that are not testable. Questioning these sorts of "truths" equates to a crisis of faith, and that is often looked upon as a personal failure or giving in to the temptations of some evil spirit. Questioning also alienates you from your community.