How Can We Depoliticize Climate Change?


Photo: Kevin Burkett via Flickr/CC BY
Is such a thing even possible?
The existence of climate change itself has clearly become a political issue, and the trend is only looking to deepen. Look, for example, at the current crop of Senate GOP candidates: Every single one of them opposes policy to address climate change, and nearly all of them question man's role in global warming. After the midterm elections, the GOP's stance on climate change will be further removed from the science than even the Bush administration's was. Meanwhile, polls show liberals growing slightly more concerned about climate change. The question is, how do we stop this divisive descent?Sometimes the ol' question-in-a-headline tactic is a ploy to entice the prospective reader to find the answer in the article below. But not this time. I'm posing a genuine question (perhaps against my better judgment, as the comment trolls may run with this one).

Now, I certainly don't think that every one of these candidates is stupid, or distrusting of science (though there are surly some dim bulbs running on both sides of the aisle). No, the greater problem is that it's become politically expedient to dismiss climate change.

At the moment, much of this has to do with the fact that the hard-right Tea Party -- the group that is currently galvanizing conservative voters to head to the polls -- is deeply skeptical of climate change, and is forcing conservative politics to adapt accordingly. Not all of those in this group believes climate change is a hoax (though some certainly do), but just about all agree that governmental regulation is not the answer. It was a recurring phenomenon this primary season: If a conservative hoped to appeal to the base, he or she would have to attack climate policy. But even before the Tea Party became a national political force to be reckoned with, conservatives were generally uneasy (to put it lightly) with climate change -- due largely to the solutions government was able to come up with to address it.

Hating the Solutions, Not the Science
And that, more than anything, is the root cause of the public's unease with so-called anthropogenic global warming (that, and serious funding from industry groups, who view its acceptance as a threat, to disseminate contrarian ideologies): Nobody -- not individuals, not car-owners, not fossil fuel execs, nobody -- wants to change their behavior on the recommendation of a seemingly obfuscated scientific theory. I, for one, don't. Of course, we know that the immediate individual costs of enacting, say, the climate bill passed in the House, would be minimal in reality (very slightly higher electricity bills is pretty much the extent of it). But that doesn't ease the impression that climate change stirs in many.

Yet as the science grows stronger, it gets harder to dismiss the need for solutions -- so naturally, the focus has shifted to questioning the science itself. Whereas even the Bush administration acknowledged the existence of climate change, it's in vogue now to brush it off altogether. As a result, now more than ever, those who recognize that man is contributing to climate change and those who don't are likely to fall neatly along the same lines -- liberal and conservative. Which is very unfortunate.

Understanding an accepted scientific theory should demand nothing of political values. People should be able to look at climate change, which 97% of scientists in the field confirm is real and caused by man, and have an open discussion about it.

De-politicizing Climate Change
So the question is, what can we do to move the conversation in that direction? How do we de-politicize climate change? Is it even possible?

Some argue that as the economy stabilizes, people will be more receptive to discussing unpleasant things like climate change again, and the discussion will proceed from there. Others say that a natural disaster of the sort that climate change makes more probable -- like the heatwave in Russia or the flooding in Pakistan -- may spur genuine dialogue again.

But I worry that, at least for the next couple years -- key years to act at that -- the ideology opposed to climate science will be firmly planted in Congress. Unless we find some way to steer the conversation to more productive grounds on a national level, I fear we may lose some valuable time in addressing the issue. Grassroots action and activist movements like 350.org are a potential answer -- that's how the Tea Party grabbed the spotlight, after all -- and could, if executed properly, bring climate action back into the common discourse on an even ground. It could, however, also further politicize the issue -- perceived eco-protests are pretty firmly rooted in the popular imagination as deeply liberal.

It's a worrying question indeed, but I can't help but believe there's a solution out there -- be it more public involvement from climate scientists themselves, a louder voice for clean energy business advocates, grassroots action, a scaling down of 'anti-science' name calling (which I myself am guilty of), and so on -- I'm just at a bit of a loss for what it is.

More on the Politics of Climate Change
Big Society Versus Big Government Versus Catastrophic Climate Change
Tea Party, Oil Companies Take Aim at State Climate Laws
Best and Worst of 2009: The Year in Climate Change Politics

Tags: Congress | Global Climate Change | United States

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