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Intentional Ignorance

November 6, 2012

I wrote this essay to offer some essential information about our world and the future of our species, adding my voice to the many cries of alarm over the environmental crisis (lately reaching criticality). [More…]

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Conservative, Climate-Change-Denying Members of Congress are Neither Deniers nor Conservatives

You’ve heard them. Conservative Republicans claiming that climate change has been happening since the beginning of time (which is true), but not bothering to explain that those changes were epic, huge, and spread over extremely long portions of the Earth’s 4.55 billion year existence. (This is not their only outrageous miscommunication about climate change, as I’ll describe later, just an illustrative one.)

It’s not just a matter of political philosophy, but lack of knowledge of history and/or the scientific basis of climate change phenomena.

The Beginning. The fruits of modern civilization come from the great trees of science, engineering, and other more general knowledge. Our country has flourished—some would say above all others—because it was founded on principles of equality, justice, fairness, and a belief in the value of knowledge. That was central to the framers of our Constitution and our political system.

A faction of our political system has arisen using a different approachin which beliefs are based on how you want the world to work, not on how it really works.

True Knowledge is based on facts and evidence derived from careful study. In the last few decades, however, a faction of our political system has arisen using a different approach—in which beliefs are based on how you want the world to work, not on how it really works.

We see some political leaders spouting fake news, fake facts, and fake science. They are sometimes called science deniers.

But they really are not.

When they drive a car, cross a bridge, fly on an airplane, get a flu shot, and take medicines, they are willing to stake their lives on science and engineering. They are not science deniers, just deceivers,  charlatans,  and quacks—because they know better (or should).

I call it intentional ignorance, spouting incorrect logic and incorrect information because a predetermined belief is given precedence over what is true and proven.  By using fake facts, political leaders deceive themselves and the public they profess to serve.

When we all went through kindergarten, elementary school, and high school, most of us had some exposure to science education. Hopefully this included a modicum of practical engineering, which depends on good science. We obtained at least a passing knowledge of how science works. We learned about a few of the most prominent scientists of past and present and their most famous works.

This is also the case for most members of Congress. A few of those, mostly Republicans, seem not to have received the message. They deny or ignore the dire warnings climate scientists have been giving us for several decades now.

How science works. I distinguish laws from theories of science. If the evidence for a theory is extremely strong, has been shown to be correct in experiment after experiment, test after test, then we call it a Law of Science (at least within the ranges of variables like speed and distance, over which the law has been proven valid). Most of us have learned to believe in established science, so much so that we regularly put our lives on the line for its laws.

By this test, I claim that no member of Congress (nor nearly any other political leader) can be a true science denier. They may sometimes sound like they are, but they prove they’re not by driving cars, going across bridges, riding elevators in tall buildings, taking prescribed medicines, flying in airplanes, and eating foods inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.

Climate Change Facts. I return to my statement that some conservative Republicans claim climate change has been happening since the beginning of time.

They fail to say that the temperature of the Earth began a relatively stable period some 10,000 years ago. This warmer interval reached that stability by achieving a mixture of atmospheric gases, including carbon dioxide, having relatively constant concentrations. These gases trapped a little more of the incoming solar radiation (like a greenhouse does in keeping its interior warm during cold days, see figure below) than previously, when the Earth was a lot colder. This stabilized the Earth’s temperature at a level that made abundant plant and animal growth possible while supporting the rise of human population and the development of civilization.

Our Atmospheric Greenhouse. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and a few other gases, are called greenhouse gases because they act in our atmosphere like the glass of a greenhouse. That glass allows solar radiation to pass through but blocks longer-wavelength infrared radiation emitted from warmed surfaces toward the glass from escaping back through the glass to the outdoors. This trapped heat keeps the greenhouse interior warmer. See the graphic illustration below.

In the Earth’s case, the greenhouse gases, present in sufficient concentrations, prevent enough of the radiated heat from getting through the atmosphere and into outer space, to warm the otherwise frigid  Earth to temperatures conducive to life. The process is illustrated below.

This greenhouse warming of the Earth remained stable for 10,000 years, as shown in the chart below, allowing humans to invent agriculture, build better living structures, develop geometry, and learn to write and draw pictures.

This produced a slow-at-first, then accelerating advance of civilization, which reached a turning point in the early 19th century when the fossil fuels were discovered, technology expanded rapidly, and population growth started its exponential rise.

Global Warming. As fossil fuels were burned to release their energy for heating homes and offices, powering transportation systems, and making electricity, extra carbon dioxide gas was injected into the atmosphere. This build up of CO2 in the atmosphere accelerated over time, as shown in the chart.

Concentrations measured in parts per million (ppm) over most of the last 10,000 years remained below 300 ppm.

Ice cores and direct measurements tell us that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are now higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years. During ice ages, CO2 levels were around 200 parts per million (ppm). During the warmer interglacial periods, they hovered around 280 ppm.

NASA reports that “in 2013, CO2 levels surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history. This recent relentless rise in CO2 shows a remarkably constant relationship with fossil-fuel burning.”

The consequences include increased frequency, strength, economic damage, and social upheaval of storms like tornadoes and hurricanes.  There are other, more prolonged adverse consequences, like the melting of land glaciers that raises sea level, melting of floating sea ice that exposes darker ocean to more solar absorption and hence more heating, and like increased acidity and salinity of the oceans, resulting in the killing of coral reefs and many of the sea creatures depending on them.

Other Claims by Fake Fact Purveyors on Capitol Hill. Both Congressman Bill Posey (R-FL8) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), not currently climate deniers, have recently assumed that solar is more expensive than fossil fuels, using that as a reason to support the continued extraction, transport, sale, and use of petroleum and natural gas. Similar views were expressed by other members of Congress. Senator Rubio wrote a 4 May guest column for the Pensacola News Journal, claiming that fossil fuels are cheaper than wind and solar energy.

Ryan Koronowski wrote on 28 April that “There are 180 climate deniers in Congress, and one in the White House.” Rubio and others claim that renewable energy will employ fewer workers than fossil fuel production and use. I took some time to set the record straight on such mis-statements in this recently published article: “Solar Energy Realities Not Understood by Some on Capitol Hill.”

Should Climate Change and Environmental Protection be of Concern to Conservatives?  Paul Foote wrote in The Guardian in 2010, “conservative thinking provides a deep well of arguments for protecting the environment and tackling climate change. I would argue the long political and philosophical heritage of environmentalism is in essence, conservative rather than radical. If the action needed to enhance the security of our own and future generations seems radical, that is merely a reflection of the extent to which we have collectively lost touch with the conservative tradition.” He further explained this view as follows:

Good government has always been concerned with improving people’s quality of life and protecting their futures. This responsibility to safeguard the resources we have inherited is a feature of conservatism that has been more often associated with the preservation of political and religious institutions, finances and culture. Yet the same principles apply to the environment.

He adds that shifting to greener sources of energy, for example, “creates big opportunities for business.” He pointed out that “This year [2010], for the first time, investment in renewable energy outstripped investment in conventional energy. Our economic competitiveness is bound to our ability to become leaders in green technologies. The green agenda is the growth agenda.”

He summarized his argument:

A conservative argument for championing environmentalism involves marrying the principles of responsibility, conservation and security to an emphasis on the local environment. It is about guarding our green spaces, the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we live and work on. It is the environment people see, experience, enjoy or hate – but in any case it is the immediate context of all our lives.

I have already indicated why so-called “science-deniers” in the Congress are not deniers of science, including the science of climate change. They are following misplaced values and fake facts given to them by charlatans in support of a misplaced understanding of conservative philosophy.

Conclusion. This brings me to the final conclusion, stated in the title of this article: congressional conservative climate change deniers are neither deniers nor conservatives.

Ross McCluney holds BA, MS, and PhD degrees in physics, has worked as an optical engineer for Kodak, an optical oceanographier for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and for 31 years as a research scientist for the University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center. He helped plan the University of Miami’s 1970 observance of the first Earth Day Teach-In and has been an environmental advocate since. He also writes for Medium.com and is an occasional guest columnist for Florida Today. See his Publist and this link to a related article on Medium: goo.gl/xJ1ECZ

Short link to this article: wp.me/p2Z6ug-mF

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