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?

Comments