By Bob Ferris
It is a tough week for me with three colliding ideas. Luckily, at least of the moment, they are all moving in the same direction. What are the three? The first is the US Department of Agriculture NRCS directive that climate change comes into a federal scientist’s mind as climate change but must spill onto the electronic or written page as weather extremes in some bizarre sort of intellectual transmutation.
Why is this simple term shift so egregious? First of all “climate change” is a term of art. It is an agreed upon abstraction for a specific set of phenomenon with established causes and consequences. Telling scientists to make this substitution is essentially like telling lawyers not to use the term “murder” because you do not like the implications. The second foul here is that the Administration's preferred term is both inaccurate and misleading as it perpetuates the false narrative of “global warming” and the specious refrain: How harmful can warmer days be? It is scientific censorship, but also intellectual alchemy only this time—at least in a metaphoric sense—the direction is from gold to lead not the other way around.
This whole idea of being afraid of words or phrases so perfectly brings to mind the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the old man is to be stoned for saying the word Jehovah. Somehow it seems that some think that if we do not mention a phenomenon that then it does not exist. Utterance apparently brings life to the thing. So for all those out there with this science-phobia who think that words have in themselves special powers I offer this: CLIMATE CHANGE…CLIMATE CHANGE…CLIMATE CHANGE.
The second colliding idea is the judicious release, some would call it a leak, of a third draft of a thirteen-agency publication of a federal report on climate change. The report affirmatively—at least as affirmatively as science allows—lays out the present-day and future consequences of climate change as well as our role in the coming impacts. This seems an odd action until you understand that by making this draft more public at this point makes it more part of the record. Subsequent drafts and the final will all be compared to this one with the attendant questions of why something was changed or not. This also becomes a tool in a sense when agencies look to overturn rules and regulations designed to protect us as this can always be introduced as evidence legally that has to be addressed. It will always be subject to the question: Why did the government believe this then and what has changed to influence their thinking?
Now there are those who will squeak some about leaking. How could they do this? My sense is that those who argue this have never had to manage around an abusive and incompetent boss. These doubtful critics likely also focus on the individual act rather than the pattern. Isolated incidences of leaking indicate points of rebellion or poor-hires, but when it is wide-spread and across agencies it indicates something very different indeed. And isn’t that part of why we are here: The inability of certain sectors of the population to recognize or accept the implication of patterns?
The third colliding element is that my wife and I went to go see Al Gore’s new movie An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power which in my mind was easier to watch and more impactful than the first—certainly more visually pleasing. We went with friends (the review by my friend David Elliott here) after having a tasteful lunch at their home and touring their garden. I mention this not as an aside to the movie but because one of the core resonances of this newest Gore offering is that it is about climate change and consequences but it is also about setting a positive tone about human relations and interactions. We sat around a table as friends and shared ideas. Those at the Conference of Parties (COP) meetings on Climate Change came together as friends—certainly with their own interests in mind—but looked for solutions that served everyone’s purposes. They sought fact-based resolution rather than irrational conflict.
One cannot objectively watch this movie without contrasting the styles and postures of those accepting climate change for what it is and isn’t and those traveling down the path of denial or obstruction. Senator James Inhofe comes off like an ignorant and rude dirt clod angrily pounding rhetoric and not giving an opportunity for response. Inhofe is the thoughtless dentist asking complicated questions after filling your mouth with gauze and clamps. He is all about the tooth he’s charged to extract and seems to care very little about the fate of the patient, which in this case is us. Donald Trump too paled in comparison with all the other world leaders shown. Trump emerged completely as someone lacking depth, knowledge, and compassion.
Perhaps the deeper meaning of this movie is one of choice. What course do we want to set for the future? Will we regain our stature as a world leader by following that evolving thread of science, thought and logic sketched by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and others or descend back into the Puritanical excesses our country was founded to escape. The challenge of climate change is that it is here and getting worse whether we accept it or not. We will, if we act prudently, be able to ameliorate the worse of it by a combination of prevention and adaptation. How successful we will be and for how many will absolutely depend on attitude and approach. Our willingness to see what is obviously ahead and sit at the table with others dealing with issues of mutual concern and negotiating agreeable solutions is critical. Walking away is not winning it is failure.
Climate change is often spoken of in terms of tipping points. These three elements speak of this phenomenon in their own way. The first indicates that we have reached a point where all that is left as a strategy by those not wanting to adapt to a world that needs adjustments is to strangle intellectual discourse. The tipping point of truth has certainly been reached.
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The second hints of rebellion not the militia-based, hardware conflagration advocated by Alex Jones and others but the thoughtful software equivalent that created Silicon Valley and the moon landing. For this latter type to blossom America needs to foster science, qualify of life and innovation in order to keep and attract the intellectual diversity that catalyzes our leadership in this arena. Because while osmosis tends to equalize distribution of molecules across a filtering border there is no such analogous phenomenon of smart and accomplished individuals flocking to locales lacking visionary leadership, offering worse living conditions and steeped in more stressful political regimes. I strongly suspect that no scientist looking for a change gets up in the morning searching for a country that openly disparages science and starves its academic institutions. We cannot have the likes of Betsy DeVos at Education, a non-scientist nominated as the lead scientist at USDA and still no science advisor at the White House without realizing we have reached a science tipping point in the US.
The movie is a tipping point of another kind. It is a tipping point of modeling the art of managing around Congress and the Administration who each seem both unwilling and unable to deal with this crisis in an informed and mature manner. If our leaders cannot lead then leadership needs to come from different sources. Dale Ross the mayor deep in the heart of oil country portrayed in the Gore movie is an artful example of how this works. I was heartened by the simple and silly partisan banter between Gore and this mayor. It reminded me of a time in pre-Gingrich and pre-Rove DC when we could play well with those of opposing political philosophies while at the same time getting what needed to get done in a manner that was respectful of those differing philosophies. Yeah, imagine that.