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My Road To Damascus: Coming to Terms with Global Climate Change

Michael Stafford is a 2003 graduate of Duke University School of Law and a former Republican Party officer from Delaware.  His writing has been featured on national and local blogs such as FrumForum and TommyWonk. He is the author of a forthcoming book An Upward Calling: Politics for the Common Good on the need for public policy, and politics, to advance the common good that will be released on June 1, 2011 by AVT Books. 

My Road to Damascus: Coming to Terms with Climate Change

by Michael Stafford

I’m a “climate change convert.”  Like many of my fellow conservatives, I was  traditionally skeptical of the science supporting the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis.  Today, I am skeptical no longer.  Like  conservative blogger D.R. Tucker, on this issue, I was ultimately “defeated by facts.”[1] Today, converging arguments have persuaded me that AGW is real and that we must take action to prevent it.

Reading the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was the critical moment in D.R. Tucker’s conversion process.  In my own case, I finally reached a point where I could no longer in good conscience deny the implications of the cumulative weight of so large a body of evidence.

That body of evidence is extensive, and growing.  For example, in 2010 the National Academy of Sciences issued what has been dubbed “‘the most comprehensive report ever on climate change.’”[2] The National Academy of the Sciences report echos many of the same findings as the earlier 2007 IPCC report but “reflect[s] a greater urgency because committee members had an additional five years of research to draw on.”  And in 2010, for the first time, the Pentagon identified AGW as a threat to our nation’s security in its Quadrennial Defense Review.[3] Indeed, just a few days ago, Australia’s  Climate Commission issued a new report examining recent scientific research and concluding that it is “critical” to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade as the economic and ecological impacts of AGW are already beginning to become evident.[4]

Another critical element in my own conversion was the leading role being played by Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church in articulating the moral imperative to address the threat posed by AGW.   Earlier this month, a working group at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences issued a declaration calling on all people of good will  “to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses.”[5] And the Pope himself highlighted the “problems associated with climate change” and the need for collective action to address them in his January, 2010 World Day of Peace message.[6] Taken as a whole, Catholic thought and teaching on the environment illuminated for me the fact that caring for the natural world, and an ethic of responsible stewardship towards it, were integral components of an authentically pro-life worldview.

In the end, my own extensive reading and research on AGW made the following conclusions inescapable:  today, there is no debate in the scientific community about whether the Earth is warming—it is. There is also a nearly unanimous consensus that human activity is responsible for this warming. There is some debate, at the margins, over the severity of the consequences that will inure from this and whether we can take any remedial measures that will slow, stop, or reverse this process. The consensus position, however, is clear—AGW will probably have a significant negative impact on human civilization and the natural world, and there are practical steps that could be taken now to avoid this fate.  Given the foregoing, addressing AGW today is an ethical and moral imperative.  Failing to do so is a repudiation of our responsibilities both to each other, to the poor, and most particularly, to future generations.  It is a breach of faith, trust, and duty, of enormous magnitude.

Regrettably, while the scientific evidence supporting AGW has become increasingly more persuasive over the past several years, and the need for immediate action ever more apparent, public opinion, at least in the United States, has been trending in the opposite direction.

I think there are several reasons for this.  First, few of us (myself included) possess the technical expertise or knowledge required to independently assess and analyze scientific research, reports, or peer reviewed literature.  As a result, we fall back on pop-culture works, like the thoroughly debunked book “Cool It,”[7] and reports in the mainstream media.  The climate denial industry has exploited this by endeavoring to create “doubt” in the minds of Americans, despite the fact that no reasonable grounds for doubt remain.  Meanwhile, the scientific community has not been particularly effective at communicating the case for AGW in a way that is accessible and understandable to most Americans.  At the same time, the radicalization of the political Right, and the rise to prominence of an extreme form of libertarianism within its ranks, has made opposition to AGW a required tenant of its political orthodoxy.  In other words, our political ideology demands that it cannot be true- therefore, it is not.[8]

The rejection of proven science in favor of a form of ideologically driven magical thinking by the GOP is extremely unfortunate, and unnecessary. As D.R. Tucker has observed, “[i]t does not put America on the road to serfdom to suggest that the federal government has a compelling interest in protecting the country from ecological damage. If anything, it puts America on the road to common sense.”  Similarly, the embrace of climate denialism by the GOP today represents a rejection of the traditional conservative concern for preserving and extending the stability of communities and institutions over time- of stewardship for society.  As David Jenkins has pointedly noted: “The policies being peddled by these folks reflect a live for today-let me do what I want mentality that has nothing to do with the conservative notion of protecting the interests of future generations.”[9]

Given the foregoing, there is a moral imperative of the most urgent nature for all people of good will, and particularly Republicans, to speak out on AGW and the threats that it poses.  Collectively, we must work to better inform the public and expose them to the scientific research on this issue.  In this regard, we should keep in mind Edward Tufte’s use as of the Challenger disaster as a case study in the importance of organizing and communicating complex information effectively.  Here, that means making the case for AGW in a way that is both powerful and persuasive to the average person.  In addition, part of the effort must be a sustained movement by conservatives willing to speak out on climate issues- this is critical to breaking through the ideological prism through which many conservatives view AGW today.  Another element of this effort is networking- there is no reason for any conservative climate change convert to feel alone!   Thankfully, there is an organization for Republicans concerned about AGW, and the anti-science agenda being pursued by loud segments within the GOP- Republicans for Environmental Protection- and I am proud to serve as its Coordinator here in Delaware.

I want to close with a cautionary tale that has deeply informed my own thinking on AGW and environmental policy- one based on the profound implications of remarks made by Dr. Paul Crutzen in his 1995 Nobel Prize lecture.[10] Dr. Crutzen earned his Nobel Prize for  his research on the damage caused to the Earth’s ozone layer by CFCs.  Dr. Crutzen’s lecture includes information  on the role of chance in determining the extent of human impacts on complex natural systems- one that should cause climate-deniers to pause, and reflect.  In his lecture, Dr. Crutzen noted that, had the chemical industry simply developed “organobromide compounds rather than CFCs” then “without any preparedness” humanity would have been faced with the destruction of most of the ozone layer before the scientific community had the ability to analyze and measure the problem.  Obviously, this would have had a catastrophic impact on life on Earth.  Reflecting on the roll of pure chance in avoiding this outcome, Dr. Crutzen “conclude[d] that mankind has been extremely lucky.”   For me, Dr. Crutzen’s remarks highlight the need for prudence and responsible stewardship in environmental policy, and with respect to AGW.

I am a climate change convert, and I know I’m not alone.  Today, we must work with renewed vigor to better educate the public on the threat posed by AGW, and to build support for policies designed to eliminate or mitigate it.  However, given the scope of threat posed by AGW, time is not our ally.  We need to hurry.  There’s no telling how much longer our luck will hold.

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[1] Tucker, D.R. (April 19, 2011). “Confessions of a Climate Change Convert.” FrumForum.  Retrieved from: http://www.frumforum.com/confessions-of-a-climate-change-convert

[2] Maugh II, Thomas H. (May 20, 2010). “National Academy of Sciences urges strong action to cut greenhouse gases.” Los Angeles Times.

[3] Broder, John M. (Aug. 8, 2009). “Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security.” The New York Times. In the Review, the Pentagon noted that Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment. Although they produce distinct types of challenges, climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.” See Johnson, Brad. (Feb. 1, 2010). “Pentagon: ‘Climate change, energy security, and economic stability are intrinsically linked.’” Grist.  Retrieved from: http://www.grist.org/article/2010-02-01-pentagon-climate-change-energy-s...

[4] Shankelman, Jessica. (May 23, 2011). “Australian climate change report bolsters Gillard’s carbon tax campaign.” Business Green.  Retrieved from: http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2072915/australian-climate-change-r...

[5] Independent Catholic News. (May 12, 2011). “Vatican issues major scientific report on climate change.” Retrieved from:  http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=18215

[7] See: Begley, Sharon. (Feb. 22, 2010). “Book Review: The Lomborg Deception.” Newsweek.  http://www.newsweek.com/2010/02/21/book-review-the-lomborg-deception.html

[8] For a discussion of the reasons behind public opinion changes on AGW, see: Merchant, Brian. (May 12, 2011). “Do Climate Skeptics Change Their Minds?” Slate.

[9] Revkin, Andrew. (Mar. 14, 2011). “‘Republicans for Environmental Protection’- Endangered Species?” The New York Times.  Retrieved from: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/14/republicans-for-environmental-protection-endangered-species/