Letter to the Monitor with Trevor Nicks

Every time I think about climate change and science denialism I think of a weekly reader my sixth grade class did about ten years ago. If you went to public school, you probably remember the weekly reader as a thin glossy magazine containing short informative articles followed by a few “thought provoking” questions. Well, on a snowy Friday, Feb. 2, 2007 (I remember because the day before was my birthday and school had been cancelled due to snow) my sixth grade teacher handed out a new set of weekly readers. On the cover-picture of this particular issue was a chunk of ice caught-in-motion as it splashed into the ocean and sent icy waves up into the air and onto the icy edifice from which it had fallen. Over this image was some garish yellow text saying “Global Warming.” After spending 15 minutes or so reading the watered-down kid’s version of climate science, my teacher asked “What do you all think, is global warming real?” I remember how I looked out the window at the snow-covered trees, thought about how cold I had been the day before while sledding, and remembered how just that morning I had used a rock to break the ice covering my family’s chicken’s water barrel. Then, and with the confidence that comes from having been the previous year’s science fair winner, I said “it can’t be, look at the snow.” Everyone else murmured in agreement, someone mentioned how their dad told them that the scientists were lying. I don’t remember exactly how my teacher responded, but my sixth grade class reached a consensus; to our young impressionable minds, global warming was a hoax.

Now, ten years older and nearly done with a degree in biochemistry, I think about that moment with more than a little bit of regret. I often wonder why my teacher didn’t take the opportunity to discuss scientific facts, the invisibility of CO2accumulation, or how our society’s advancements are often ushered in by experts and not just-turned-12-year-olds. But, this was in the same middle school in which we watched a movie about the foretold 2012 Mayan apocalypse and watched a movie questioning the moon-landing. It wasn’t until eighth grade our science teacher drew a CO2 molecule on the board and explained the principals of spectroscopy to us; light interacts with some types of gasses, like CO2. If there’s more CO2 there are more interactions, and thus more energy is absorbed in the form of heat. That made sense, but that night I saw a politician on TV say how climate change is fake and scientists can’t agree on it. The cognitive dissonance was real.

But that dissonance wasn’t just in my head. Since Al Gore lost the Presidential election to George W. Bush in 2000, a common delineator between the Left and Right of American politics has been the belief or disbelief in the existence of climate change. But, worldwide shifts in the past seventeen years have left the GOP as the only major political party in a developed country to hold a platform denying the existence of or science behind climate change. Republican climate-science denialism comes in many forms. Ten years ago, it came in the form of discrediting scientists by calling climate change a “hoax” based on fear and not science. More recently, most Republicans decided they’d rather abdicate their responsibility to take a position on climate science and how to react to it by simply claiming “I’m not a scientist.” This was a somewhat more amiable approach and seemed like a move towards acceptance of the science. Republicans like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal evenfollowed this statement with something like “I’d leave it [climate change] to the scientists to decide how much, what it means, and what the consequences are…” But, with the election of Donald Trump, who has said “Global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a man who has sued the agency multiple times, it seems Republicans have relapsed into their complete denialism of climate change.

What does this mean for us?

Well, it doesn’t mean climate change isn’t happening. But the point of this article is not to convince you that it is. It’s not really up for debate anymore, and if you want to read more about that, then check out this article.

As a scientist, when someone says they don’t believe in climate change, my immediate reaction is to want to explain it to them. I’ve always thought “oh, well somebody just hasn’t explained it well enough to them yet.” It seems that most scientists share this sentiment, as evidenced by the burgeoning amount of literature with titles like “12 tools for communicating climate change more effectively.” and the fact that Yale has a program dedicated to Climate science communication and the public’s perception of the issue. Inherent in this line of thinking is the scientific community’s belief that people aren’t dumb, the idea that a majority of Americans, when presented with facts and data that are easy to understand, will identify a trend and reach a conclusion that is probably right. This seems to be the case as today ~64% of Americans say they worry at least a fair amount about climate change according to Gallup.

But, what about the other 36%, and more specifically, what about the politicians who deny climate science?

As much as each party’s members likes to demonize the other side as being dumb, less intelligent, or illogical, it’s just not true. In example, Senator Ted Cruz went to Princeton for undergrad and then Harvard Law School. He’s not dumb. Yet, he’s called climate change science a “religion” and “pseudo-scientific theory.” To be honest, I don’t believe Ted Cruz or any other Republican leader truly thinks the science is fake or that climate change isn’t happening. I think they’re lying. I’m not naïve enough to think that a man who graduated valedictorian from his high school, went to Princeton, and then Harvard Law School while also garnering multiple national awards for debate is dumb enough to just not understand climate change. Rather, I think Ted Cruz and other Republican science-deniers do what they do because denying climate change exists postpones the discussion on what to do about. They are deftly aware of the economic impact legislation will have on their home states, like Ted Cruz’s Texas, which rely heavily on the oil or coal industries. They know, because their top campaign donors are the oil and coal companies which will be most affected by such policies. Three of Ted Cruz’s top campaign donors have energy, oil, or petroleum in their names.

These companies see policies battling climate change, like progressive carbon taxes and emission limits, as threats to their profits. That’s a valid concern. An equally valid concern is how to replace the coal and oil jobs that are lost due to these new regulations that limit carbon emissions. However, I don’t think buying politicians and telling them to just ignore or deny climate change is the best tactic. Because, then what do we do when Miami disappears into the Ocean because of rising ocean levels?

My point in saying all of this is that I think both Democrats and Republicans need to change their rhetoric sounding climate change. Republicans need to stop actively denying climate change and then create and offer up their own conservative solutions like the recently proposed carbon tax. A potential carbon tax was in-fact part of the reason the company I co-founded last March is engineering carbon-fixing microalgae for value-added compound production, and I’m confident the free-market will create solutions that end up replacing coal and oil jobs that are lost. As a Democrat, I think it’s important we more actively acknowledge the immediate economic cost of climate policies and the long term economic costs of climate change. We should also work on communicating the potential for innovation in green-energy to drive job growth as evidenced by more people working in solar energy than in gas and oil extraction within the U.S. To conclude, climate change denial has to stop. A person has to acknowledge they are sick before they decide which medication to take, and we must acknowledge climate change exists before we can craft the best response. Whether we like it or not, some type of change is coming. We should plan it ourselves. If we don’t, nature will, and that doesn’t end well for us.

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