Future historians will rightly compare the climate change deniers of the 21st century to the science-hating reactionaries who jailed Galileo in the 17th century.
But at least the truthers of yore had an excuse, because science was a fairly new concept. Our deniers have no such excuse.
Which is why their reaction to last week’s National Climate Assessment - a 1,300-page report mandated by Congress and authored by 300 top scientists - was so predictably pathetic. The report basically compiles the empirical evidence that by now is obvious to the naked eye (record warmth, record droughts, ever-intensifying storm patterns, ever-increasing coastal flooding, etc.), and reaches the obvious conclusion:
“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”
One of the report’s scientists says, “There is no question our climate is changing. It is changing at a factor of 10 times more than naturally.” Another says simply, “It is here and it is happening.”
But these scientists all have fancy titles at fancy universities, and we all know what the deniers think about fancy elite intellectuals. For instance: Lamar Smith, a Republican congressman from Texas (home of recent historic droughts), took his head out of the cracked lakebed long enough to assail the report as “a political document intended to frighten Americans” and lay the groundwork for “unnecessary regulations.”
This guy actually chairs the House Science Committee. Which makes perfect sense, because Republicans wanted somebody who mirrored the prevailing right-wing sensibility. According to a Pew Research Center poll, a plurality of Republicans (44 percent) and a landslide majority of tea-partying conservatives (70 percent) believe there’s no “solid evidence” that the earth is warming.
By the way, speaking of evidence that’s obvious to the naked eye, here’s an anecdote that popped up in the press last week: (although Lamar Smith and his fellow truthers would probably call it a political anecdote):
MIAMI BEACH - The sunny-day flooding was happening again. During high tide one recent afternoon, Eliseo Toussaint looked out the window of his Alton Road laundromat and watched bottle-green saltwater seep from the gutters, fill the street and block the entrance to his front door. “This never used to happen,” Mr. Toussaint said. “I’ve owned this place eight years, and now it’s all the time.” Down the block at an electronics store it is even worse. Jankel Aleman, a salesman, keeps plastic bags and rubber bands handy to wrap around his feet when he trudges from his car to the store through ever-rising waters.
I’d love to hear some clueless troll tell Toussaint and Aleman that they’re merely imagining things.
This ongoing effort to frame a climate crisis as a partisan issue, this abdication of governing responsibility (especially in the House), will continue to wreak increasing havoc with our quality of life. At this point, the only way to prod Republicans into action is to convince them that climate change began in Benghazi.
Alas, it’s a tragic flaw of human nature that, all too often, people refuse to open their minds to reality. Which brings me back to Galileo, the 17th-century astronomer who concluded - thanks to the scientific method, and the earlier science of Nicolaus Copernicus - that the earth revolves around the sun. No no no, said the absolutists in the church, it’s the other way around, the sun and all the planets revolve around the earth! This is what they faith-believed, simply because it was long deemed to be so. And because of their willful ignorance - what Galileo called “the extraordinary stupidity of the mob” - he was prosecuted and jailed.
In fact, let’s give Galileo the last word, because his plaintive remarks seem painfully contemporary. In a letter to a friend in 1610, he wrote: “My dear Kepler, what would you say of the (people) here who...have steadfastly refused to cast a glance at the telescope? What will we make of this? Shall we laugh or shall we cry?”
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.