The battle over the Keystone XL pipeline is more symbolic than substantial. The State Department’s environmental assessment report admits that the pipeline won’t significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. And the failure to build it won’t destroy our energy infrastructure.
Still, I’m happy that the Senate rejected the pipeline on Nov. 18. If a Republican-controlled Congress approves it next year, I hope that President Obama vetoes it.
Unfortunately, in the climate-change debate, symbolism has superseded science, and fantasy and denial have overwhelmed rational discourse and action. Therefore, our response to the threat of climate change has been so feeble that even symbolic gestures like the rejection of Keystone have the virtue of representing at least some action, no matter how meager.
Since we’re paying more attention to what we want to hear than to the harsh realities of climate science, anything is possible. Buffalo’s seven feet of snow provide climate deniers an opportunity to dismiss decades of research that indicates trouble ahead. What global warming?
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And when deniers aren’t denying climate change, they’re imagining that it could actually be a good thing. In an article in The Spectator last year entitled “Why Climate Change is Good for the World,” Matt Ridley considers the work of Richard Tol of Sussex University. Tol argues that warmer weather will mean fewer winter deaths and that more carbon dioxide in the air will stimulate higher agricultural yields.
In fact, Ridley notes, the worst years for polar bear cub survival in western Hudson Bay were 1978, 1984, and 1992, when bears suffered from sea ice that was too thick for seal hunting. The diminishing polar ice cap is actually good for polar bears.
Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. In a column written for the Philadelphia Inquirer last week, Alex Epstein argues that fossil fuels created “the best period in human history to be alive,” and that, therefore, we should be burning more of them, not less.
Epstein is the author of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” and the president and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress – the most prominent image on its web homepage is a colossal strip mining machine. In an Orwellian twist, he argues that “fossil fuels are likely to power the innovation that ultimately addresses climate change itself.” We may have to destroy the climate in order to save it.
Unfortunately, this sort of unscientific wishful thinking burns not only more oil and coal, but more time, as well.
Last week, browsing a library’s shelves at random, I came across a book entitled “Climatic Change,” edited by scientist John Gribbin. In its preface, Gribbin notes a number of worldwide climate disruptions, including droughts, floods, bad harvests, and the failure of the Indian monsoon. He suggests that even a minor shift in rainfall distribution brought on by climate change could have devastating impacts.
The book is a collection of complicated scientific reports on complex issues like the global heat budget and astronomical influences on climate.
But near the end of the book in an essay entitled “Global influences of mankind on the climate,” scientist William Kellogg begins with the obvious fact that mankind can and does change the global climate in significant ways and has already done so.
After a lengthy and complicated consideration of the level of mankind’s impact on the climate, Kellogg drops his scientific guise and admits that it’s not his place to make value judgments about whether these impacts are good or bad.
But he ends with this ominous sentence: “The famines ahead, wherever and whenever they occur, will assure that millions in the poorer, less developed countries will not survive to witness a ‘warmer Earth.’”
The scary part is that this book was published in 1978.
The battle for the climate won’t be won or lost based on science. Scientists have been warning us for at least four decades, while we’ve been enjoying the pleasures of a hydrocarbon heaven. The battle is a conflict of the heart and the emotions. Its outcome depends on our ability to say no. Keystone is a place, albeit symbolic, to start.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.