SHIPLEY: The politics of climate change

Let’s talk about climate change. Before we even begin, let me clarify something: Climate change is real, humans are responsible for the majority of it and if things don’t change, the effects will be disastrous. If you don’t agree, you are wrong. This is not a situation where “everyone is entitled to her/his own opinion,” because it is a matter of facts. Facts are not based on opinions. But I probably don’t need to be telling you this. Polls from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication show that about 70 percent of Americans believe in the reality of global warming, and more than half believe it’s caused by human activity. This data make me quite happy, of course.

Still, for some reason, this increasing belief in the science is not translating into political changes. As a scientist, I usually just want to be left alone with my pipettes and test tubes and never ever think about politics. Unfortunately for me, I don’t exist in a vacuum. Politicians and scientists are uncomfortable bedmates. To accomplish anything, scientists rely on federal funding for our experiments (and often our salaries). As a result, I care a great deal about what policies get enacted based on science. Politicians, in turn, rely on scientists to further our country’s innovation and insights, maintaining our “global leader” status.

On climate change, America is far from being a global leader. In most of the developed world, climate change is not up for debate. There are already regulations in place either to tax fossil fuel usage or invest in green energy tactics. So why is it not like that in the USA? Why are we still hearing about “clean energy coal” from both the left and the right during this election season? (By the way, “clean energy coal” is just regular coal prefaced with two buzzwords. It still produces the same carbon dioxide that is driving climate change).

Focusing on just the presidential election, both Romney and Obama have said in the past that they believe in climate change and that they believe humans are at least partly responsible. But from their silence on the topic, we can infer that both campaigns must feel that talking about ways to counteract it — through green energy investment and fossil fuel taxation — would not be helpful politically. If the majority of Americans believe in climate change, believe it’s caused by humans and believe something needs to be done about it, what’s the problem? My best guess is that necessary changes would be expensive, not just federally but for the individual, too. Energy costs would (at least temporarily) increase, and nobody wants to think about actually paying more for what seems like already obscenely expensive energy.

I don’t know how to get people to start caring more about saving the planet than about their wallets. I am not a politician, thankfully, and it’s not my job to figure out how to sway public opinion and perception. But I know that I, for one, would be willing to pay more for energy if it meant we were moving forward. Would you?


  • CharlieWalls

    You write a succinct starting point (I doubt you still have pipettes though). As Pfaff noted, the U.S. mostly missed the Enlightenment (see The Irony of Manifest Destiny). Not many modern countries have ~50% of their people believing in creationism. Perhaps no other does not use the metric system in everyday life, as is our wont. Being unscientific is a great way to avoid reasoning and logical conclusions from observed facts. Less energy can be used — and corresponding less CO2 produced — by simply more thoughtful actions. Still, costs will increase. A reasonable national response is going to be very, very difficult here — embarrassingly so.

    • Jenica_Shipley

      Ha, very good points. It’s disheartening; I’m not sure why so many Americans inherently distrust scientists. You’re probably right that it just feeds a strong sense of denial.

      And for the record, I (and most other bench scientists) do still use pipettes! They’re quite common (and essential).

      • CharlieWalls

        Real glass pipettes that you mouth pipette or tips on pipettors, e.g., Pipetman? I used the former well into the new age of ‘suits’ in laboratory hallways.

  • The Anti-Yale

    If Gore and Obama can’t mobilize the business world to stop murdering the planet, what hope is there?.

    Rachel Carson is dead.

    There’s no heir apparent.

    • Jenica_Shipley

      I don’t know. I think after Tuesday, the Republican party at least is going to start strongly re-evaluating their strategies. Maybe there will be more room for compromise on both sides.

  • joematcha

    I would argue as a scientist it absolutely is your job to find a way to make your findings accessible to the public. Obviously a large swath of this country is scientifically illiterate, but that just makes it more important that scientists engage with them and explain their findings in ways those with less training can understand. I mean, people don’t even understand the difference between the use of the word hypothesis and theory, how do you expect these people to have faith in scientific findings that can’t say with 100% certainty that x is true?