Why are we so divided on the issue of climate change, and why do these divisions so closely mirror the deepening red-blue national rift?
It's a timely question with President Barack Obama joining 200 other world leaders in Paris for global climate talks, and Republican U.S. Senators at home doing all they can legislatively to roll back his executive orders to address climate change, including reversing the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan and the Water of the United States rule.
The answer, it seems, is rooted not in science but in politics, which in the United States, increasingly mirrors organized religion for some – which is to say, faith trumps fact. It's why otherwise educated people cling to the literal Old Testament notion that the planet Earth is only 6,000 years old despite the geological record to the contrary. In such a world, Science, a class many shunned in school because it was "hard," stands no chance when pitted against evangelical allegiance with attendance of like-minded individuals making it even easier not to question orthodoxy.
This week's talks represent the most ambitious global talks yet on reducing greenhouse gases and preventing global temperatures from rising by as much as 8 degrees by 2100, according to some science-based estimates. The United States has committed to reducing its emissions by 26% by 2025 from 2005 levels. China, the European Bloc, and other nations are making similar pledges, and talks include ways to prevent developing nations from increasing their emissions as their populations and, hopefully, their economies grow. As dramatic as the cuts may seem to some in our country, especially to those who believe such cuts will come with reduced economic growth and profits, scientists say that temperatures would still rise to unacceptable levels by 2100 and and much more will need to be done between now and then.
The answers probably lie in a combination of technology, conservation, and politics. The data is widely available to those willing to reopen their minds to science. The Internet makes learning a lot easier than it was in the days of textbooks, each one a bit more challenging than the last. I use the Washington, D.C.-based, not-for-profit Climate Interactive organization as my bookmarked totem on the subject of climate change.
The EPA, vilified by Republican presidential hopefuls and Texas governors, is a science-driven agency and also offers a lot of useful data and information. If you want to understand Pres. Obama's thinking and the U.S. position on reduction of greenhouse gases, read this EPA background report on "Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action." The report makes the case for why greenhouse gas reductions will help avoid economic disasters rather than cause them.
For people living in San Antonio, the good news is that both municipal-owned utilities, CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), are years ahead of utilities in other cities in terms of reducing our carbon energy portfolio and water conservation. The bad news is that San Antonio still burns a lot of coal and much more needs to be done, and it will only happen if the politics align with the science. SAWS is rightfully recognized as one of the most conservation-minded water utilities in the Southwest, where droughts are cyclical and likely growing more frequent and extreme. It also is located in a city with some of the worst sprawl of any U.S. metro area, and while the topic is widely discussed, very little has been done to stop or reverse the trend. Almost every new house in the sprawl footprint comes with conforming turf lawns the automatic irrigation systems required to keep the non-native grass alive in periods of drought.
Officeholders have shown little political will to follow the lead of Western states and impose serious curbs on such non-essential water coverage. What does lawn watering have to do with the Paris climate talks? Water evaporates more rapidly as temperatures rise, so the hotter our world, the more water we lose.
Climate change deniers will undoubtedly respond with their own arguments, but they do not address government data that has never been refuted credibly. Many of the counter-arguments include spirited attacks on the messenger rather than the message, a sure sign of faith-based beliefs prevailing over the scientific record.
Since the U.S. began keeping climate and weather records in the 1880s, global temperatures have soared. Ten of the hottest years in that time period occurred in the last 12 years. Yes, there have ben major climate change cycles over the millennia, but carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have never come close to the levels of the last half century. I could go on, but read for yourself what scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have to offer on rising seas, warming oceans, shrinking ice packs, rising temperatures and atmospheric composition, and extreme weather incidents.
The U.S. government, through Republicans and Democrats administrations alike, has determined that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal," yet as Pres. Obama and world leaders struggle with the issue in Paris, here at home the debate remains mired in the inability or unwillingness of so many in our nation to understand and accept evidence-based reality. It is impossible to address a crisis when half the people deny there is one.
*Top image: Pres. Obama delivers a speech during the plenary session at the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change, on Monday, Nov. 30 at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris. Photo by Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images.