June 29, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist

Betraying the Planet


So the House passed the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill. In 
political terms, it was a remarkable achievement.

But 212 representatives voted no. A handful of these no votes came 
from representatives who considered the bill too weak, but most 
rejected the bill because they rejected the whole notion that we have 
to do something about greenhouse gases.

And as I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn't help 
thinking that I was watching a form of treason - treason against the 

To fully appreciate the irresponsibility and immorality of 
climate-change denial, you need to know about the grim turn taken by 
the latest climate research.

The fact is that the planet is changing faster than even pessimists 
expected: ice caps are shrinking, arid zones spreading, at a 
terrifying rate. And according to a number of recent studies, 
catastrophe - a rise in temperature so large as to be almost 
unthinkable - can no longer be considered a mere possibility. It is, 
instead, the most likely outcome if we continue along our present 

Thus researchers at M.I.T., who were previously predicting a 
temperature rise of a little more than 4 degrees by the end of this 
century, are now predicting a rise of more than 9 degrees. Why? 
Global greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than expected; some 
mitigating factors, like absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans, 
are turning out to be weaker than hoped; and there's growing evidence 
that climate change is self-reinforcing - that, for example, rising 
temperatures will cause some arctic tundra to defrost, releasing even 
more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Temperature increases on the scale predicted by the M.I.T. 
researchers and others would create huge disruptions in our lives and 
our economy. As a recent authoritative U.S. government report points 
out, by the end of this century New Hampshire may well have the 
climate of North Carolina today, Illinois may have the climate of 
East Texas, and across the country extreme, deadly heat waves - the 
kind that traditionally occur only once in a generation - may become 
annual or biannual events.

In other words, we're facing a clear and present danger to our way of 
life, perhaps even to civilization itself. How can anyone justify 
failing to act?

Well, sometimes even the most authoritative analyses get things 
wrong. And if dissenting opinion-makers and politicians based their 
dissent on hard work and hard thinking - if they had carefully 
studied the issue, consulted with experts and concluded that the 
overwhelming scientific consensus was misguided - they could at least 
claim to be acting responsibly.

But if you watched the debate on Friday, you didn't see people who've 
thought hard about a crucial issue, and are trying to do the right 
thing. What you saw, instead, were people who show no sign of being 
interested in the truth. They don't like the political and policy 
implications of climate change, so they've decided not to believe in 
it - and they'll grab any argument, no matter how disreputable, that 
feeds their denial.

Indeed, if there was a defining moment in Friday's debate, it was the 
declaration by Representative Paul Broun of Georgia that climate 
change is nothing but a "hoax" that has been "perpetrated out of the 
scientific community." I'd call this a crazy conspiracy theory, but 
doing so would actually be unfair to crazy conspiracy theorists. 
After all, to believe that global warming is a hoax you have to 
believe in a vast cabal consisting of thousands of scientists - a 
cabal so powerful that it has managed to create false records on 
everything from global temperatures to Arctic sea ice.

Yet Mr. Broun's declaration was met with applause.

Given this contempt for hard science, I'm almost reluctant to mention 
the deniers' dishonesty on matters economic. But in addition to 
rejecting climate science, the opponents of the climate bill made a 
point of misrepresenting the results of studies of the bill's 
economic impact, which all suggest that the cost will be relatively 

Still, is it fair to call climate denial a form of treason? Isn't it 
politics as usual?

Yes, it is - and that's why it's unforgivable.

Do you remember the days when Bush administration officials claimed 
that terrorism posed an "existential threat" to America, a threat in 
whose face normal rules no longer applied? That was hyperbole - but 
the existential threat from climate change is all too real.

Yet the deniers are choosing, willfully, to ignore that threat, 
placing future generations of Americans in grave danger, simply 
because it's in their political interest to pretend that there's 
nothing to worry about. If that's not betrayal, I don't know what is.