If the Republican party continues to deny climate change, it is provoking an ideological war between political belief and scientific facts, says Chen Jiliang, from Beijing-based NGO Greenovation Hub
The Republican leadership in both houses of Congress was quick to speak out in opposition to the China-US Joint Statement on Climate Change, saying that the commitments made could increase the cost of the clean and cheap energy on which middle-class Americans rely. Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republicans in the Senate and soon to be majority leader, said: “Our economy can’t take the president’s ideological war on coal that will increase the squeeze on middle-class families and struggling miners.”
This is not the first time the Republicans have tried to turn the fight against climate change into an “ideological war”. An ideological war is a conflict arising from a difference in ideologies, and for now we can assume the McConnell thinks President Obama is damaging the immediate interests of the American people out of some "faith" in climate change.
Is climate change a faith? In a recent report on “climate depression” amongst scientists, climate researcher Jeffrey Kiehl said “How would that make you feel? You take this information to someone and they say they don’t believe you, as if it’s a question of beliefs. I’m not talking about religion here, I’m talking about facts. It’s equivalent to a doctor doing extremely detailed observations on someone and concluding that someone needed to have an operation, and the person looks at the doctor and says, “I don’t believe you”.
Authors of the book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, spent five years studying those who have doubted the reality of acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, and climate change; denied smoking harms health; and demonised Silent Spring author Rachel Carson. Amazingly, in each of these cases the same group of people was responsible. These included scientists in the pay of big business, and plenty of genuinely neutral scientists. They came together to oppose environmental protection policies as believers in the free market who objected to government intervention – something that, for them, raised the spectre of communism. In order to protect the Western tradition of freedom, these “experts” took up their pens. It is the core value of the Republican Party – faith in the free market – which has suppressed environmental science and influenced policy.
Merchants of Doubt compares these people with diners feasting at a restaurant. When the waiter brings the bill, some deny it is the correct bill, others deny it is a bill at all, others claim not to have eaten a thing, while yet others question the waiter’s identity. And in the end they all decide that if they ignore the waiter, he will go away.
This is very interesting: it means these free marketers do not really think the market can cure all ills, nor that the market has no need for government intervention – and because they cannot explain how, without government intervention, the market will resolve these problems, they are forced to deny the problems exist at all. The conclusions of mainstream scientists are bound to contain uncertainties, but they can evaluate the risks. The responsibility of the politicians is, with incomplete knowledge, to balance different interests (including current and future interests) and make the decision which most benefits the people.
These statements from the Republicans do seem to represent progress on their earlier stance. They have at least not denied the reality of climate change, instead claiming the US cannot afford the costs of responding to it. This means a consensus on climate change is forming within the US Congress, but not that the conservative wing of the Republican Party has eased its original stance. The issue of the costs of responding to climate change that the party raises is a genuine concern, and in any nation would be an easy way to gain public support. This shows the Republicans are determined to continue to use the mechanisms of democracy to oppose action on climate change.
It is natural to put immediate interests above those of the future. And if democracy is simply an adding-up exercise of that nature, and we live on a planet with limited resources, it is inevitable that we today will consume the resources our children will need tomorrow. This is why we need politicians and scientists to act rationally and control (rather than play to) short-term impulses, in order to balance short- and long-term interests.
If the Republicans are genuinely concerned for American interests, they will prioritise limiting growth in China’s consumption of resources (with the ability to emit CO2 also being a type of resource). Because if Chinese lifestyles continue to grow along American lines, a fierce battle over resources is inevitable. They cannot prevent us following that model – but what they can do is create a new, alternative model. This is what Obama’s climate-change policy is attempting to do.
Also, protecting the climate does not mean, as the Republicans think, restricting individual liberty. Rather it means making changes in the way we live and work, in an appropriate response to the scientific and historic knowledge we have, with the aim of reducing consumption of resources to a sustainable level. This doesn’t meant that advocating for a response to climate change means playing God with the fate of future generations – it means recognising that we are just guests on this planet and have a moral duty not to wreck it during our time here.
The actual figures in the current US-China joint statement on climate change may not be particularly inspiring, but the agreement shows a willingness on the part of the world’s two biggest economies to work together. Add in the EU’s early 2030 emissions commitment, and we see that the global economy is beginning to make an effort to avoid climate change.
Treating the fight against climate change as an ideological struggle ignores the facts and does nothing to help resolve the problems faced. If the Republicans continue to deny that climate change is happening they are themselves starting an ideological war, between political faith and scientific facts. But if everyone reaches a basic consensus on climate change and treats that matter as a conflict not of ideology, but of interests, there is a much better chance of resolution.
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