Friday, February 16, 2007

A Tactical Shift

For years, members of the Republican Party and their campaign donors and supporters in the fossil fuel industry have insisted that global warming was a myth, somehow trumped up and based on faulty science. They supported this position with studies funded by the fossil fuel industry which called into question things accepted as fact by mainstream scientists years ago. For a long time this charade succeeded in confusing and dividing the American public, exactly as intended. Polls showed Americans roughly divided along party lines as to whether the threat of global warming was to be taken seriously.

But since the 2004 election, public opinion on this matter has begun to shift. Ordinary Americans have seen the extraordinary weather events of the past few years, such as the rash of hurricanes in '04 and '05 as well as the extraordinarly warm winters in much of the country. Ice is disappearing. Temperature sensitivite species are migrating northward. Amidst all of this evidence that global climate change is not just bound to happen but actually happening, public opinion has shifted so dramatically that President Bush was forced to acknowledge the matter in his 2007 State of the Union address.

So now, what are those on the right, who continue to cash the checks of the fossil fuel industry, to do to continue to divide the American people? Trying to convince them that they cannot believe their own eyes won't work. Two of the right's torch-bearers, in recent columns, have pointed the way for the new strategy. George Will and Jonah Goldberg have, instead of following the same old path, turned the whole question of global climate change into a giant cost/benefit analysis. They argue that while global climate change is happening, it would be so expensive to do what is necessary to stop it that we might as well just throw our hands up into the air and do nothing. Continue driving SUVs to and from massive suburban mansions on crowded highways, they say, because there's nothing that can be done.

The problem with trying to perform a cost/benefit analysis on global climate change is that the problem is so enormous and with so many possible effects that its very hard to put a true price tag on it. How can you perform a cost/benefit analysis when you don't know what the benefits are? What is the benefit of saving coastal cities from inundation by rising seas? What is the benefit to preventing killer hurricanes from lashing coastlines on a regular basis? What is the benefit to maintaining the Atlantic current (known as the Gulf Stream) which is responsible for keeping Northern Europe at an arable temperature?

Moreover, as the world pushes ahead with their efforts to reign in the emission of CO2 from fossil fuels, America will be in a unique position to manufacture the equipment necessary to allow societies to function as they normally do with less pollution. America can manufacture wind turbines, solar panels, and fuel cells. We can manufacture cars that run on biofuels such as soybean-based diesel fuel, or switch grass-based ethanol. We can manufacture railroad locomotives that run on fuel cells, and home generation equipment that will eliminate the need for a costly and inefficient power grid. As we develop and perfect this technology, the "costs" of reducing our CO2 emissions will drop considerably.

In short, there are so many unknowns in this equation that, given the devastating possible effects, it is irresponsible in the extreme to perform a quickie analysis and conclude that this problem is not worth solving. Having rejected the argument that climate change is not happening, hopefully the American people can see through this one, too.

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