Sunday, March 15, 2015

Of Climate Change, a Kardashian, Academic Funding, the Wham-Bambulance and Finding a Future Path in the Past.

By Bob Ferris

Exhibit A: 1995 industry science advisers' statement on climate
change from New York Times article (click photo to enlarge).
Over the past month I have written much about climate change and the phenomenon of climate denial (1,2,3,4).  These actions have afforded me the rare “privilege” of engaging in dialogues with folks who want to roll out their favorite links from denier sites as “proof” that the well-documented changes are not happening, are actually natural, so minor to be ignored, or certainly not our fault.

I try to educate as well as engage, but I am extremely troubled by the notion in this country that opinion has somehow become fact and that critical thinking skills are dying along with our global leadership in science and engineering as well as our nation’s general reputation.

In a lot of these conversations I try to use analogies because they are often easier to grasp.  One that I am using a little of late is comparing the so-called climate change “debate” to a high-profile murder trial where the prosecutors are the scientists who have documented climate change from a number of angles as well as established—beyond a reasonable doubt—our role in that phenomenon.

And the denier camp is the defense team who are engaged in creating chaos in the trial and throwing out any and all hypotheses to create doubt.  For this one might think about the late Robert Kardashian and his "dream team" during the OJ Simpson murder trial, back when Robert was the reason for the Kardashian clan notoriety rather than the escapades of his daughters.   He and his team successfully created doubt.

But what about the judge, jury, bailiffs and court reporters?  Here is where the climate change dialog as a murder trial analogy falls apart.  In the Simpson trial there were rigorous attempts to insulate all of these other players from influences that would compromise the integrity of the trial and ultimately the verdict.  In the climate change scenario these parties, likely represented variously by the Administration, Congress, Judiciary, Media, general public and many others have been left absolutely unprotected from a constant, boundless onslaught of a defense lawyer-style, spaghetti throw of nonsense that has made even some of the most logical among them doubt that they once saw the dead body with an initialed dagger covered with incriminating fingerprints sticking out of the victim's chest.  Not only that but due to the wonder of money and the magic of Citizens United many of these actors in different positions are becoming increasingly beholding to the defense table financially.
“Yet in real dollars, the United States was among only five nations in the study that cut education funding. The average nation increased education spending on average by 5 percent between 2008 and 2010; the United States cuts its education spending by 1 percent during that time.” (see here
“The U.S. was slotted between the Slovak Republic and Lithuania in the overall results, two spots behind Russia. But the PISA assessment notes that there are few statistical differences between the scores of the U.S. and those countries.”  (see here
Now some will proclaim optimistically that truth will win out and justice will prevail, but I wonder because the truth is buried so deeply beneath a mountain of misinformation and the collective ability of the US to think critically is being purposely compromised by the same folks who are piling the myths higher and deeper.   Why would I say something like this? When I was a child, California had the best schools in the nation.  A generation later California has four cities on a Forbes list of the 10 least educated cities (see here) and only one city in the top ten most educated.  Moreover, the US leadership in educational achievement is slipping mightily as our elected officials seem more concerned with helping Wall Street and holding taxes low for the upper registers than with making sure we invest in the next generation (see here).  Our country’s real wealth has forever been its people and we should remember that always.

One of the discussions I engaged in during this time involved the above post by a friend on Facebook. This post and comment hinting that the growth of sea ice in Antarctica casts doubt on the idea of climate change is not dissimilar to the "evidence" offered up by Senator James Inhofe with his infamous snowball in the Senate.  That either offering is accepted without considerable consternation or eye-rolling by anybody is both troubling and telling.  Why for instance would anyone with a basic education or minimum of experience not understand that we have two poles in play and that sea ice and land ice are not the same and all these factors need to be examined collectively to draw any conclusion about a global phenomenon (see here for a discussion of what is happening with polar ice)?

Perhaps more problematic in this discussion and others is what passes for reliable information and credible sources. During this specific discussion above one person kept posting arguments from put out by a person who identifies himself as a concerned citizen named Justin Credible as in "just incredible."  His real name is Justin Prang and he runs this site as well as a sister climate denier site called  CO2CoolsYouFools. Okay, but what is Mr. Prang's background and what does he do for a day job that sets him up as an authority on atmospheric physics and climate change?
"Are you confident and LOVE to show off your hotness? Wanna be part of the raddest, most unique promo team on the planet? Then #GETINTHEVAN and show us what you got! No rules, no prudes, all styles welcome." Sales pitch from Wham Bam Babes owned by Mr. Prang who often travels around BC in what he calls the Wham-Bambulance.  
Turns out that Mr. Prang (pictured at left) writes a blog about living in an RV but also is the CEO of Wham Bam Promotions that appears to be a modeling entity of sorts for alternative models (not of the mathematical sort). While he seems like a charming guy doing good for the world and rocking a purple zebra pattern bed spread in his RV, it is hard to see why he would think himself the logical choice to educate folks on climate change.  Moreover, why would folks gravitate to him in this role (see his professional profile here) ?

Now granted there is a little facetiousness going on here and this is an extreme example, but really not all that extreme in terms of what we are seeing in the denier world. How, for instance, is this that much different from Friends of Science or Marc Morano's Climate Depot site?

Now I am ending with the ridiculous here because I want to drive us back to where many of us were in the 1990s when the industry science advisers made the above statement and many of us in the environmental and conservation communities were having productive discussions with industry leaders about solutions and remedies.

I am not alone in these sentiments because Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz recently wrote a piece called A Reagan approach to climate change and environmental writer Mark Lynas wrote We must reclaim the climate change debate from the political extremes both of which argued for a coming together in the middle, an acknowledgement of the situation as well as challenges and then moving forward with solutions.  Now I would and have argued that an extremely damaging stance is more harmful in the long run than an extremely cautionary approach, but I could just walk away from that if those in the other camp would step up as George Shultz has done and call for science-based rationality and a disassembling of the denial machine.

Given what has been invested in this effort to discredit the science and what the core players are willing to invest in the future, this last part promises to be a tall, tall order.  But someone, somewhere has to ask themselves what happens if the nearly $1 billion strategy being orchestrated for the 2016 election is truly successful?  What happens to us all and this country if environmental regulations are largely removed, taxing structures hugely demolished and funding for infrastructure such as education, health care and transportation are totally Tea-Partied?  Will this still be an America where we will all want to live or rather a Libertarian dystopian construct where smiles are few and unrest widespread?

In times of important decisions and critical changes I think it is always good to do some visioning
and honest recollection.  For me this starts with an old and tattered T-shirt (pictured at right).  In the late 1990s I worked on a project to teach trumpeter swans how to migrate behind ultra-light aircraft. Because of this I was invited to be on the Eastern Shore's answer to "Lake Wobegon" a live radio show recorded in a theater in Easton, Maryland and called "Radio from Downtown."  I was on the show once or twice but the one I remember most was the one where I talked about swans and Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest played the piano and sang a very credible "Danny Boy." In the green room Wayne and I had some opportunities to talk which led to him being on a promotional video for the swan project and later conversations about the Endangered Species Act and even about UC Santa Cruz because one of his children was interested in attending my alma mater.

My point is that we talked and had a respectful interchange that led to progress for both of us.  In
point of fact it was enjoyable.  Moreover, it was not unusual as I was having similar discussions with other Republicans like John Turner about economic incentives for endangered species. Mr. Turner a former Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service under Bush I cited my work in these areas as well as the Keystone dialogues (of which I was a member) repeatedly in his own work with Jason Rylander on economic incentives contained in "Private Property and the Endangered Species Act: Saving Habitats, Protecting Homes."  But there were other efforts on issues like habitat conservation plans and safe-harbor agreements happening at this time too (see here).

So when we look at the true "gains" of the post-Gingrich era conservative revolution or whatever you call what has moved us more towards an oligarchy over the last 20 years there are two that standout: Acrimony and divisiveness.  My sense is that our system has been wildly manipulated to become more interested in defending ideologies than representing people or solving problems.

So our options moving forward are either becoming more acrimonious and divisive or talking a bold move in an old direction because it is best for our nation and others.   As suggested by Shultz and Lynas climate change may be a good place to start this transition, but I would also urge others in leadership positions who remember times when we used to work together to chime in as well.  We need to move past the ridiculousness of the circus portrayed above and back to a state where science and scientists are respected and understood and American once again becomes a symbol of visionary progress rather than far too fertile fodder for political cartoons.

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