Personal responsibility and climate change

Published 9:20 am Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Column: My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

What does it mean when a snowstorm drops a foot of snow in early May, and the mercury tops 100 degrees 12 days later? It could very likely mean you live in Minnesota.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

One could also point to climate change, but two unusual events alone don’t prove anything, because weather is highly variable. Long-term climate data, on the other hand, tells a story of ongoing changes in the climate that will have impacts few of us recognize, probably within our lifetimes or those of our children. By the same token, our unusually long winter in the Midwest didn’t dent the overall warming trend, even though it caused a significant drop in the number of people who see climate change as a concern.

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Looking at the bigger picture, there is scant doubt among scientists that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity. A few groups, such as Americans For Prosperity, have obfuscated the strength of this consensus, which is in reality about as high as it could possibly be: 97 percent. As a result of these signal-jamming efforts, the public perception (particularly among Republicans but including a fair share of Democrats) is that there is widespread debate in the scientific community on this issue. And by muddling public comprehension, these groups have successfully taken climate off the political agenda in the last two election cycles.

How can we turn this around?

Let’s talk about personal responsibility. Why is it difficult to accept that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity? Is it because it seems too large for anybody to do anything about? Is it because it might force us to change our consumption habits, particularly of fossil fuels? A lot of the changes that climate models are projecting are outside our comfort zone, but the personally responsible thing to do when facing a large-scale problem is not to ignore it, deny it or run away from it. It is to team up and face it.

If conservatives who believe in personal responsibility saw climate change as human-caused, they would be more apt to do something about it. As soon as this shift happens, we can make progress. So what else is standing in our way?

Let’s address science denial. It’s probably fair to say that the majority of scientists are liberals and atheists. When groups want to reject something these scientists find evidence for, particularly climate change or evolution, a subset of people quickly reject it on the basis that the scientists are godless liberals.

But when scientists make breakthroughs in other areas — medicine, communications and transportation — it doesn’t seem like this is as much of an issue, and people are usually happy to embrace the longevity, opportunities and convenience they produce. So what makes evolution and climate change different? Is it because these most directly threaten what some people’s conception of God and God’s role is?

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time. In one of the best-known examples of religion versus science, the pope flipped his tiara when Galileo said the sun was the center of the universe (still not correct, but getting closer) and the Earth moves around it, in direct confrontation with the Bible. Under threat of torture, Galileo recanted to the Inquisition in 1633. Did that make all his observations wrong and the Bible right? No, but somehow God survived all that.

Let us examine the messengers more closely. It’s pretty easy to “shoot” godless liberal scientists. And it’s child’s play to dismiss a pompous, know-it-all, has-been politician named Al who flies around in a jet (including to pick up a Nobel Peace Prize), lives in a huge house and tells us to reduce our emissions.

Judging by the level of polarization in our political realm, it will most likely take conservatives to convince other conservatives that climate change is real. I’m heartened by the work of former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, a Republican, to address human-caused climate change. He calls for ending subsidies for fossil fuels and instituting a carbon tax (offset by other tax cuts).

I also admire Paul Douglas, a Republican meteorologist in Minnesota, who has unequivocally stated that climate change is real. He says it’s neither a liberal nor conservative issue and we are personally accountable for trying to stop it.

So what is left? We need to unmask who is behind groups like Americans for Prosperity, which deliberately cloud the issue of climate change. That includes the brothers Charles and David Koch and other big energy interests, which profit from people burning through as many fossil fuels reserves as possible. They are the biggest problem, and they have polluted our political system with their money. To clean that mess up, we need campaign-finance reform. (Yes, it always comes back to this.)

And how likely is that to happen? If we’re determined, even more likely than a foot of snowfall or a 102-degree day in May.


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.