Climate Change: a Social Phenomenon #ClimateChange #environment

climate change blue marbleI often discuss climate change with RF_alum, a long-time friend. I guest-post on his blog as “Ponderer”. We worked together in technical fields at the Rocky Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons facility that has since been decommissioned. We worked on weapons and in the environmental clean up.   We both encountered our share of people pushing political agendas by misrepresenting science.

While we have much in common, we also have disagreements. I’m a “warming alarmist” and RF_alum is a “denier”. We both dislike these terms (they present caricatures) but since they are used in popular discussions, I’ll repeat them here – ironically.

I’m frustrated by the global warming/climate change debate. There seem to be disagreements on so many levels that it is hard to evaluate what I hear. I think there are two separate-but-related sets of arguments.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution

Today I want to discuss the argument that does not get enough explicit coverage: the social argument. I’ll cover

science in a future post.

For many people, climate change is the latest battle in a long-standing war over Environmentalism. Environmentalists

seek to protect natural resources and ecosystems through the political process by lobbying, activism, and education. The movement started early in the Industrial Revolution. We tend to forget how severe environmental impacts once were and take for granted the improvements between 1850 and 1950.

climate change peta trademark lettuce ladiesAlthough Americans are still interested in the environment, it is not a top priority. To capture waning public attention, some environmentalists stage bizarre events that create skepticism about their motives. As stated in one Wikipedia quote, they launch “an attack on middle-class American capitalism.” Or, as a friend said to me recently, “they only want everyone to think badly of man and man’s negative effects on the planet.”

But pollution is a real issue. If your neighbor pours something noxious into the river (or air) upstream from where you drink (or breath), he is unfairly taking something of value from you. If he is a wealthy factory owner and you are an individual, you need a social movement to address your problem.

Environmentalism has brought much good to America. Our waters and air are cleaner and healthier. We no longer accept pollution levels currently seen in China. Here is a less obvious example of Environmentalism improving our lives: There is compelling evidence that reducing lead pollution, especially removing lead from gasoline, has reduced violent crime.

As I wrote here, to discuss such deeply significant topics, you need a relationship with the person you are talking to. Unfortunately, the relationship between environmental opponents is one of long established animosity and distrust, with dirty tricks and hyperbole on all sides.

When possible responses to climate change became a policy issue, these familiar opponents squared off. Media pundits drew up battle lines, and their saturation of TV and radio has formed the public debate. Both sides want the same policies they have wanted for the last fifty years, and climate change is simply the current battlefield. Climate science is irrelevant.

Most extremist “alarmists” and “deniers” are entrenched and unlikely to change. I hope the rest of us can get past them. From my perspective:

  • There are three aspects to any problem; physical reality, ethics, and esthetics.
  • We need to understand our problems.       Science helps us here.
  • We need to seek solutions. Our values and capabilities are vital to this discussion. (See a book review covering our moral foundations here: http://bit.ly/1aFdtVs.)
  • We need to realize that good people sometimes disagree.

Science is the best method for understanding physical reality. Unfortunately, as Carl Sagan said, “We have arranged [our civilization] so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.” What is an intelligent lay-person to do?

In a future post I’ll discuss the science of climate change from my own, amateur vantage point.

Notes:

I’ve tried to select links with a long life, but the Internet is a fickle beast and some links may be broken. Take a look at SkepticalScience or search on the terms that interest you.

It is worth reading two Wikipedia article for the relevant history: Environmentalism and Anti-environmentalism.

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