Getting past climate denial

This has been a seminal week both in the readings for this class and climate-related activities outside of class.  With everything said and done, I’m starting to sort all these experiences into two camps: The climate denial problem, and possible solutions.

The climate denial problem is well covered in papers by McCright, Boykoff, and Freudenberg.  I was most interested in the McCright paper, which uses concept from the study of social movements – framing, mobilizing, and political opportunity structure – to analyze the success of the climate countermovement in stopping the Kyoto protocol in 1994.  This paper is from 2003 and looks at conservative think tanks, congressional hearings, and news media coverage from 1990-97.  I did not realize until I read this how far back the roots of this countermovement go.

McCright makes a great case about how these conservative think tanks used the political opportunity of the Republican Congress elected in 1994 to mobilize the countermovement and neutralize the problem of climate change that scientists had already reached consensus on.  In short, in a direct contest between climate science and ideology, science got its pants beat off.

I feel like only now are scientists, with the help of social scientists and communicators, starting to get their footing to fight back.  This is where the solutions come in, and the paper by Groffman et al describe how to communicate science in a way people will understand.  It is not a question of a knowledge deficit – that has been clearly established by both research and events.  It is a question of framing, public engagement, and appealing to an innate sense of purpose and meaning.  The Groffman paper gives some good ways to do that, but we need more.

Personally, I am fascinated by the story of how corporate interests managed to frame and manipulate information so as to win such a long delay on climate action.  Oreskes and Conway demonstrate in Merchants of Doubt that these tactics trace back to the tobacco wars and have been going ever since.  But simply being aware of this manipulation is not enough.  We have to get beyond it to get to climate solutions, and we don’t have much time.  So we need solutions, and we need them now.  Framing climate change as an energy problem that provides an opportunity for economic growth, as a public health issue, as a national security concern, and as a question of morality and ethics of environmental stewardship are all good options.

This week on campus I saw Katharine Hayhoe speak Sunday night.  I asked her what to do about the political polarization that has come to define this issue.  She thinks climate denial is not based on the science but on fear – fear of the solutions.  That goes along with the conservative think tanks (and my climate denier at MCL) afraid of big government programs to address climate change.  But big government doesn’t have to be the solution.  Fueling economic growth, reducing risks to public health, and not propping up foreign oil regimes ought to be things that all Americans can agree on.  And Katharine pointed out that if we let the climate get to a crisis point, that is when big government will intervene, and we end up with what we fear most.

This week we also have an event tomorrow on climate change and national security, and we saw the release of another report from the Pentagon stating that climate change is an immediate national security threat.  Yet on Friday we have coming to campus the granddaddy of climate change denial himself, S. Fred Singer.  I hope to squeeze in that event between all my other obligations this week to see how it goes.  Last time he was on campus, he got a hostile reception.  I hope this time it’s either hostile or completely ignored.  It’s way past time for people like Singer to get off the stage.  We need solutions, not more misinformation and dithering.

Setting program goals

In Chapter 8, Guy Peters discusses program evaluation and policy change.  Peters says program evaluation is difficult for a number of reasons: goals may not be measurable, the time frame for meaningful goals may be too short, measures may not include all outcomes, targets may be difficult to identify, measures may look more at procedure than performance, outcomes may be valued differently by different constituents, or evaluations may be rigged.

One way to be more transparent in what you are measuring and why is to state the goals and evaluation measures as part of creating the program.  An example of this is the EPA’s Clean Power Plan proposed on June 2.  In this plan the EPA sets the goal of lowering carbon emissions from power plants 30% by 2030.  Lowering carbon emissions from power plants is necessary because power plants are the largest contributor in the nation to carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change. Lowering emissions will not only mitigate the worst effects of global warming which cost over $100 billion in 2012 alone, but the reduction in particulate matter and ozone also carries up to $93 billion in public health benefits through avoiding up to 6,600 premature deaths, 150,000 child asthma attacks, and 3,300 heart attacks.

Under the plan, each state is given a goal for emission reductions by 2030, with interim goals to meet by 2020.  However, states have broad flexibility in how they meet these goals.  Four building blocks are laid out: making fossil fuel plants more efficient, using more low-emitting power sources such as natural gas or nuclear, using more renewable energies such as solar and wind, or using electricity more efficiently.  States can also implement these building blocks in a variety of ways such as investing in energy efficiency programs, upgrading aging infrastructure, passing new regulations, setting policy to encourage more renewables, or working with other states to create a regional strategy.

The goals of the EPA Clean Power Plan are modest, common-sense, and highly achievable.  Although this plan is the most our government has ever proposed to address climate change, it’s the least we can possibly do, and only the beginning of what needs to be done to address this urgent issue.  Yet incredibly this plan is being challenged in court by 12 states, including Ohio, which have sued to stop it.  Although the Supreme Court has ruled three times, including most recently in June, that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, these states argue that the EPA does not have this authority because it is already using the Clean Air Act to regulate other emissions from power plants such as mercury.

To make this argument, which on the face of it sounds ridiculous, the states are relying on an anomaly in the law.  During the lawmaking process, the House and Senate each pass their own version of the bill, which is then reconciled in a joint committee before being sent to the president for a signature.  Unfortunately, part of the Clean Air Act pertaining to what the EPA can regulate as pollution did not get reconciled before signing, so it contains language from both the House, which is more restrictive, and the Senate, which grants broad authority.  When such failures of reconciliation have been challenged in court, the courts have generally given discretion for interpretation to the agency doing the regulating, as the Supreme Court did in ruling that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon pollution.

Moreover, the House version may not say what the states think.  Although one section of the Clean Air Act states the EPA can regulate specific emissions such as mercury, the section of the act that the states are suing under says the EPA can regulate any other source of pollution, to cover sources the first section might have missed.  The House language prevents the EPA from regulating states twice under this section, but that’s not what the EPA is doing.  It is regulating mercury under the first section of the Clean Air Act, and carbon under the second section.

Most observers expect the state’s challenge to the EPA Clean Power Plan to be thrown out of court.  So why are states pursuing this?  Two words: politics and money.  The lawsuit is led by West Virginia and joined mostly by states where coal and oil are big business.  Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people and money is speech, these industries have the green light to pour more money than ever into elections, installing politicians who fight every possible regulation on fossil fuels tooth and nail.  It is a waste of taxpayer funds, and it burns precious time we need to address climate change, which threatens to tip the environment into something totally different than the one human civilization and most current species evolved in.

Scientists tell us that our window to mitigate climate change is closing fast – as in the next 10 to 15 years – and if the environment does reach a tipping point, it may not be something we can adapt to.  Humans are dependent on a healthy environment, and we cannot choose our economy at the environment’s expense.  On the contrary, moving toward a healthy environment would strengthen the economy with investments in clean energy, innovation, and public health.

Climate change is happening now, but we also have the tools to address it.  The EPA Clean Power Plan is a good first step.  We cannot allow the iron triangle of the fossil fuel industry, the politicians it puts into office, and the courts that allow them to do this, to put an entire civilization at risk.  People must make their voices heard, whether through votes or protests.  There is now a true social movement on climate, and it won’t stop until this problem is solved.