The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Changing Climate

According to a recent report published as part of a cooperative effort between Yale University and George Mason University, 18 percent of Americans do not believe that climate change is real. Of those who do believe it is real, 35 percent believe that it is mostly caused by natural changes in the environment.

Strictly speaking, it is possible for someone of any political alignment or party affiliation to disavow climate change. Because denying climate change has in recent years become such a central part of Republican orthodoxy, however, and because Republican orthodoxy is at this point almost exclusively defined by conservative beliefs, it is reasonable to conclude that the vast majority of Americans who do not believe in global warming are conservative Republicans.

Now, for someone to not believe something because he or she does not find the evidence convincing is entirely rational. The whole purpose of looking at evidence is to decide whether it is convincing on its merit; otherwise, we would just guessing our way through life. 

However, conservative Republicans are by their nature prone to accepting positions on the basis of faith. Many are evangelical Christians who not only allow for the possibility of a divine Creator but accept their theology as absolute truth in defining the particular nature of that Creator. Evidence on these points is certainly less than what has been compiled by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration on climate change, yet conservatives see no conflict in writing social policy on the basis of what they perceive to be God's will.

Conservative Republicans also tend to be strong advocates of so-called supply-side economics, the premise that cutting marginal tax rates for top earners actually raises revenue. This premise is obviously true in certain extreme cases and false in others -- for instance, it is immediately apparent that people will not work of their own accord out of a measure of self interest at tax rates approaching 100%, nor can revenue possibly soar as tax rates approach zero.

For most combinations of numbers in a graduated tax system, however, supply-side theory is little more than guesswork even among economists with the education to understand it in quantitative terms. It certainly is not intuitive that marginal tax rates from 35% to 32% will result in increased revenue. But conservatives rally around this point time and again, even though most have virtually no grasp of the economic underpinnings of the theory beyond a possible 100-level Economics survey class years ago in college.

Far from steeping themselves in economic theory to gain a better understanding of what they are defending, they accept it on faith and denounce those who claim it to be questionable (including fellow conservatives taking a more intellecutally curious view). That is because, in addition to faith, conservative thought is underwritten by an extreme skepticism in government and academia (both of which are "liberal"). As demonstrated by Tea Party platforms like the 2010 candidacy of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, modern conservatives tend to dislike complicated answers and are distrustful of any sort of proof beyond their immediate comprehension.

In this context, the endless thousands of pages of documented evidence supporting climate change are a mark against cultivating conservative belief; more evidence has actually created more skepticism.

Changing Perceptions

As time goes on, however, the situation is changing. Why? Simple: the weather is changing too.  People take note when things "feel" differently than they used to.  Beaches that don't seem as broad as they were in childhood memories.  Hurricanes and tornados "seem" to be occuring more often now.  In other words, the argument that climate change is occurring is moving out of academic publications and into direct perception -- the sort of uncomplicated answers to which conservatives gravitate.

That leads us to where we are today.  Many conservatives are concerned about stewardship of God's creation and would not casually accept human-wrought destruction of the planet.  On the other hand, many of our political leaders (Republican and Democratic) are beholden to industrialists whose pollution is regularly identified by experts as contributing to climate change, and those industrialists do not want to see mandates for costly changes that will impact their profits.

As more of the conservative base starts to believe that climate change is occurring, the only way to ensure that they do not start supporting efforts to change environmental policies is to convince them that if climate change is happening, then it is a natural process and not something caused by pollution and human greed.  This approach is working quite well; as stated earlier, 35% of Americans believe that climate change is a natural occurrence. 

But measles is natural, and we vaccinate against it. High infant mortality is natural, as are high rates of mothers dying during childbirth, yet we have pre-natal care and hospitals with skilled staff to reduce those risks. Human beings cannot naturally fly, yet we have airplanes. Natural occurrence is and should not be a dismissal of responsibility to act.

Conclusions

If climate change is natural, it is still a clear and present danger to all of humanity. Melting ice will raise sea levels and cities will flood. Changes in rainfall will lead to famines. Forget about whether your beach house may flood; unless people start applying their best efforts to combatting the effects of climate change, billions of people may die.

It's time to get serious, because the long history of human tragedy makes one thing perfectly clear: by the time that the last skeptics are finally forced to admit that they were wrong, it will be far too late.

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