Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Betraying the Planet? Betraying Ourselves.

If anyone wonders why the global climate change debate hasn't already been won, all they need to do is look at Paul Krugman's column on June 29th, titled "Betraying the Planet" to understand why. For all the analysis of global warming issues and attempts to debunk the other side's arguments, they continually forget one thing: winning a public political debate isn't about facts, it is about audience adaptation.

This is where the right has clearly won the debates over the years. As I have private conversations with political consultants on both sides of the aisle, those on the left talk as if all you have to do is present the facts to the people and they will fall in line. The consultants I have talked to on the right are far more direct privately but all say they will deny it publicly when they say that most Americans just don't have a clue about policy analysis or issues, so they take an issue, find some value for people to link it to, and then run on that value on the issue. They don't even attempt to create a serious policy discussion.

With the exception of Barack Obama, who has been able to simplify complex issues for people to understand without losing the attention of the people or the basic nuances of the issues, almost no one else has had success with that approach. While I wish it was easy for people to do it so that we could all talk in terms of policy, the reality is there is a reason he reads his speeches off a teleprompter as much as he does: taking the complex and communicating it to the average American in a meaningful way is just not easy. As a matter of fact, it is just plain hard.

While my conservative friends often will say the average American isn't smart enough to deal with it, that is why we elect representatives; I am not that pessimistic. It isn't that people aren't smart enough. It is that given everything in our average day from a full work day, making breakfast and dinner, finding time to exercise, pay bills, spend time with the kids or our significant other, cleaning and yardwork, and everything else we have to do (including spending time in front of the television), it just doesn't leave a lot of time to understand the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations and conflicts, much less the very nuanced science of global climate change. Americans can understand it for the most part, we just don't have time.

So when Krugman refers to the denial of global climate change because "they don't like the political and policy implications of climate change", he actually needs to address that core issue instead of simply glossing it over and dismissing the politicians and pundits of the right. They clearly have a following, and they clearly have some support considering the applause Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia got according to Krugman, and the ratings that Rush, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity get.

At its core, their dismissal of global climate change as a hoax is part scientific (yes, I did say it) and part psychological. From the scientific side, when a paradigm in a field is put forth and starts to take over, it is the responsibility of researchers to test the paradigm. They start with the basics and they move to areas that are even simply plausible but not necessarily true in their testing in their attempts to debunk the paradigm. In other words, it is the job of scientists to debunk global climate change by testing it even with the improbable.

Thus, when you hear of researchers theorizing about things like solar flares, planetary alignments, polar shifts, and many other of the "it is a hoax" crowd ideas that are being shouted, part of it is actually science testing the paradigm. However, they spout it as if it is a factual rebuking of global climate change when that is not what the scientists are saying at all. Anyone who has ever read a journal article and then read the popular media reporting of the study knows what I am referring to.

The second part is psychological. If global climate change is true, the scientists and politicians are really saying that it is our own fault that we may be about to die as a species. Think about that for a minute. Parents live for years and years in denial of the roles they may play in the death of their children or a loved one if they had some part in it. Imagine the mother who let her 16 year old drink and he ends up dying in a drunk driving accident partying with friends. The burden is heavy and there is a very real psychological desire to deny it. Now, imagine that burden multiplied by the population of the planet if the worst case extinction scenarios actually played out. That is a lot of guilt. That is a tough pill for anyone to swallow.

But then the climate change crowd goes even further when they speak of the "death of the planet". They try to create enough guilt to get people to give up and act, but why should they? The climate change people just gave them an easy out. The planet has had much hotter centuries and much colder ones. Species have gone extinct and continue to do so, but the planet remains. This one extra step to try to guilt people gave them an easy out. We may die, but the planet won't.

If scientists are right, we have had many cycles like this where the large species have gone extinct but smaller ones have survived and evolved into what we have today. That gives them their easy out: "See it is a cycle and the planet will survive it" they say. And that gives them their "ah ha! You are using hyperbole, not facts" so you undermine your own credibility.

If Krugman and the climate change crowd kept it simple, they would get much further. Basic points:

* MIT researchers had put forth conservative estimates of a 4 degree rise by the end of the century. It is appearing they dramatically underestimated the number and have revised it to a 9 degree rise for our future generations.

* Yes, there have been cycles in the past. Unfortunately, these heat cycles have often killed many of the species on the planet. Predominantly the ones that were at the top of the food chain, not the bottom.

* Humans have impacted climate change by making it happen faster. Yes, it may have happened without us, but it is happening faster with us. Why does that matter? We need time to adapt. They anticipate that climates will change dramatically such that what is East Texas today may be Illinois in the future.

Now, it is easy to say "hey, East Texas isn't so bad", it isn't easy to move the farms of Kansas and Iowa to Minnesota and Wisconsin when malls, major cities, businesses, and homes all occupy what would become needed farmland to feed America, much less to export. Moving a farm north by 2 to 3 states isn't as easy as say relocating a family hardware store.

The result will be a dramatic decline in the amount of food that is produced globally. In the 1800s, that wouldn't have been too bad for two reasons: 1) most of the world farmed or provided their own food (no, Kroger and Super Target wasn't there to feed the founding fathers), and 2) the population was far, far less than it is today. With a massive decline in food comes a lot of death and chaos from societal breakdown as people try to survive without food because we no longer live on farms and have a lot more people to feed.

Whether that climate change is man made or natural, Americans will need to be able to provide their own energy source. That is why an energy bill that promotes things like micro power generation through solar and wind energy on homes is a good idea. They may not be able to rely on a grid. It will also slow climate change emissions.

Americans will need to be able to have more local and adaptable crops with more flexible farming methods. That is why local sustainable agriculture projects that use less toxins in farming and build local co-ops that are more adaptable to localized farming conditions as they change are a good idea. Large corporations farming only in optimal areas will be less able to adapt to major climate change globally than localized farmers.

And slowing climate change emissions may help slow the rate of change and it may not. But we owe it to our people, not our planet, to do what we can to buy every day of adaptation time that we can. Krugman may not realize it, but our planet will survive climate change this time and probably many more times in the future. The question is will humans survive, and if they do, how many billions will die and what will be lost in society in the chaos of change if we don't do everything we can to adapt.

Climate change is real. Man made or nature, it exists and it is coming. Take the blame, don't take the blame, it really doesn't matter. It will come regardless of whether we do. The question is how bad to we really want to preserve our way of life. If we want to preserve it, we better start finding ways to buy time and adapt now, because tomorrow may be too late.

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