In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: why do people deny climate change. This is The Two Minute Drill for February 20, 2015.
Over the past year, the Obama Administration has proposed a series of Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) regulations intended to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants (e.g., the Clean Power Plan). Republicans have attacked these measures as being part of a broader “war on coal,” and have threatened to attach riders to unrelated appropriation bills to choke off funding for the EPA.
In a hearing last Wednesday, Republicans spent much of their time questioning EPA’s Acting Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation about whether climate change is a reality, and whether it is worthwhile for the United States to tackle the problem. Committee chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK), for example, used his time to question the science of climate change: “You don’t have science on your side,” he said. “You keep saying science is settled; you have the assumption that that is the case. That is not the case.”
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
Let’s start with the facts. First, climate change is real. How do we know this? Because there are numerous lines of evidence that converge to this conclusion. Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has increased at an unprecedented rate in the past 200 years; the polar ice caps are thinning and breaking up at an alarming rate; glaciers are retreating at the highest rates ever documented; and sea levels are rising more than ten times the rate that has occurred over the past 3000 years. Second, climate change is caused by human activities. How do we know this? We can directly measure the amount of carbon dioxide humans are producing, and it tracks exactly with the amount of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is coming directly from our burning of fossil fuels, not from natural sources.
These facts are not in dispute. When science historian Naomi Oreskes surveyed all peer-reviewed papers on climate change published between 1993 and 2003, she found that there were 980 supporting the idea of anthropogenic climate change and none opposing it. In 2009, Doran and Kendal Zimmerman surveyed climate scientists, and found that 95-99% agreed that climate change is real and that humans are the reason. And in 2010, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study that showed that 98% of climate scientists are in agreement with anthropogenic climate change.
But if the climate science community speaks with one voice, why is there still any debate at all?
A 2012 study by Dan Kahan and his co-authors provides a potential explanation. Kahan compared 1,540 Americans’ views on the risks of climate change with their scientific literacy and ability to reason logically and mathematically. Their result: Higher scientific literacy and reasoning skill correlated with lower levels of concern about climate change; in fact, individuals with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.
In other words, while “gases don’t care whether you are a Republican or Democrat,” people sure do. An opinion about climate change is one of the flags we fly to prove that we’re part of our political group. It’s a form of “protective cognition,” a mechanism to prevent the science of climate change from driving a wedge between you and your peers. Often, knowledge and education only makes this problem worse.
When it comes to climate change, it’s easy to dismiss climate deniers as lunatics. Surely people who do not believe in climate change are deluded, deceived, bought off, stupid, neurotic or perhaps merely insane. Their access to the truth must be less than our own! It’s far more difficult, however, to accept that we are all human beings and that, as human beings, we are all subject to biases. But to avoid being caught unprepared and harmed by global climactic change that threatens our survival, we must learn to overcome them.
Word Count: 490
The Five Best Things We’ve Read This Week
Here are the five most interesting articles we read this week:
- Oliver. “I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people –even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.” Oliver Sachs on learning he has terminal cancer.
- In-House Counsel. From The New Yorker: “After a Hasidic man exposed child abuse in his tight-knit Brooklyn community, he found himself the target of a criminal investigation.”
- Religious “Morality.” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone is being pressured to withdraw the morality clauses he sent to Catholic high school teachers. Among the highlights, the handbook “asks employees to ‘affirm and believe’ that ‘adultery, masturbation, fornication, the viewing of pornography and homosexual relations’ are ‘gravely evil.’ Artificial-reproductive technology, contraception and abortion are described similarly.”
- Revelation. Peter Bergen in CNN: “For many of us the idea that the end of times will come with a battle between ‘Rome’ and Islam at the obscure Syrian ton of Dabiq is as absurd as the belief that the Mayans had that their human sacrifices could influence future events. But for ISIS, the Dabiq prophecy is deadly serious.”
- Mockingbird. “Would you like to understand how the ‘new’ Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, came to be billed as a long-lost, blockbuster sequel to To Kill a Mockinbird . . . when, by all the known facts, it’s an uneven first draft of the famous novel that was never considered for publication.” WaPo’s Neely Tucker: To Shill a Mockingbird.
And in case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. This past week examined the regulation of dietary supplements. Read the Column for February 17, 2015 – FDA Needs Stronger Rules to Ensure the Safety of Dietary Supplements.