NOVAK: Republicans need to stop denying climate science

We should debate what to do about it, not whether it exists

In Oct. 2015, during a Republican presidential primary debate, Lindsey Graham, a widely respected Republican senator, was booed for saying: “I'm not a scientist … But I've talked to the climatologists and they tell me that greenhouse gas effect is real, that we're heating up the planet. I just want a solution that would be good for the economy that doesn't destroy it.” The mere concession that modern climatological data is accurate was enough to trigger a release of vitriol from the polarized crowd. Instead of prompting a substantive debate about the best ways to balance economic and ecological concerns, he was shouted down immediately. Sadly, this incident is reflective of a greater trend in the Republican Party. This ideological divorce from the research of the scientific community at large is extremely dangerous for the future of political discourse and the future of climate policy.

Ever since the first scientific studies linking human activities to global climate change began to surface, we as a nation have witnessed one of the most peculiar political phenomena in our history. For the past few decades, when it comes to energy and environmental policy, the two major American political parties have been operating on two entirely different foundations of fact. There hasn’t been enough ideological dialogue about the proper role of government in industrial regulation and the appropriate extent to which we should place commercial interests over environmental and public health concerns. Rather, it has been a heated, seemingly endless and apparently unconstructive debate over the validity of scientific research that has been widely accepted as fact by the scientific community. Somehow, the nature of political discourse in this country has taken a scientific fact and made it a point of political opinion. It truly is bizarre to see politicians refuting data that has been meticulously collected, consolidated and analyzed by the brightest minds in their disciplines.

Whether this has been a top-down development, with politicians beholden to corporate interests swaying the opinions of their core supporters, a bottom-up development, with constituents basing their voting patterns on the climatological opinions of office-seekers, or some combination of the two, has yet to be determined. Regardless, the Republican Party, which has seen a recent divergence in opinion between multiple different internal factions, can come to a universal agreement in their denial of climate science. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a whopping 41 percent of Republicans don’t believe in global climate change, and an additional 30 percent believe climate change is occurring as a result of natural processes, rather than human activities.

Already, our discourse and policy is being adversely affected by this divergence. Because of the hostility to climate policy by the Republican majority in Congress, much of the federal climate policy of the last six years has been achieved through executive order and bureaucratic rule setting, without the explicit consent of the legislative branch. In addition to building Republican resentment of climate policy, this strategy threatens the tradition of bipartisan compromise when it comes to the most pressing crises. If one political party has a monopoly on an area of policy, it opens the door to the dangers of polarization and groupthink. It is critical for the health of the country that individuals from across the ideological spectrum have the opportunity to deliberate over climate policy in the United States.

As recently as a few years ago, with the growing pressure of foreign oil imports, it seemed as though the country was ripe for transition into a constructive debate about the merits of clean energy. With the advent of hydraulic fracking, and the subsequent revival of the American oil and gas industry, however, this conversation has come to a halt. With domestic fossil fuels now constituting such an important part of the American economy, and the influx of donations from energy companies, mostly to Republican politicians, there is little immediate incentive for Republicans to act, or even entertain a discussion, on implementing climate policies.

While it truly is a tragedy that such a large proportion of America’s population and elected officials are currently in denial about the future prospects about global climate change, the one comfort is that this denial cannot conceivably last forever. Eventually, the physical effects of global climate change, namely the rise of ocean levels and increased incidence of droughts, will become too overwhelming to ignore. Already, many cities, towns and municipalities across the country have begun to feel the pressures of climate change. Norfolk, for example, home to the largest naval base on the globe, recently made a more than $1 billion investment in tidal walls to combat rising sea levels that could ultimately threaten the naval base as well as the city at large. As more people are brought under the danger of being adversely impacted by the effects of climate change, it will surely become harder for politicians to consistently deny climatological data.

The growing group of people adversely affected by climate change could conceivably begin to vote for Democrats with greater frequency, given their history of friendliness to climatological data and their commitment to a comprehensive plan to combat the effects of climate change. Ultimately, the hemorrhage of coastal and drought affected voters could force the Republican Party to realign their party platform, at the very least accepting the science of climate change and hopefully addressing the issue with conservative policy proposals, bringing otherwise conservative voters back into the fold.

Climate change is irrefutably one of the greatest crises facing our world today, and it is of the utmost importance that we hold our representatives accountable to the facts and begin constructive discourse about the best policies to address it.

Brendan Novak is a Viewpoint writer.

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