Climate-change denial persists in various modes, none of which is particularly convincing.
But they don’t have to be. They’re successful if they raise enough doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change to encourage complacency about the future of our planet.
There’s the “I-am-not-a-scientist” mode, which depends on a resigned know-nothingness to suggest that climate is too complex for an ordinary person to understand. At the same time this perspective requires the dismissal of the views of actual scientists.
The opposite of this mode of denial is the notion that humankind has always managed to come up with the ingenuity to solve the dilemmas that face us. Inherent in this way of thinking is the assumption that we have unlimited capacity to find new forms of energy as we exhaust the old ones.
And if we’ve caused some problems with the climate, we can solve them with geoengineering. We'll eventually discover ways to force the carbon in the atmosphere back into the ground, and we'll figure out how to shroud the earth with clouds of sulfate particles that will reflect some of the sun’s radiation back into space. No problem.
Then there’s the senior senator from Oklahoma, Jim Inhofe, who in January became the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, whose purview includes climate.
In 2003 Inhofe questioned whether global warming is even a problem for humanity. In fact, he said, “… increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.”
In 2012, Inhofe said, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He (God) is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
In other words, how does a puny humanity develop the hubris to believe that it can do anything that could degrade the well-being of all Creation?
But this mode of climate-change denial is a false humility thoroughly at odds with the history of civilization. For the most part, the narrative of human progress has involved the careless exploitation and depletion of local resources and then moving on to new ones.
This system worked fine, more or less, for millennia, but now the growth of both human population and of our technological capacity has pushed us up hard against the globe’s natural limits. Hardcore deniers may contend that the globe doesn’t have limits, but logic suggests otherwise.
Sen. Inhofe should know this better than most. Oklahoma was at the heart of the great modern parable of humankind’s capacity to affect the environment, the Dust Bowl.
We don’t hear much about this period of American history these days, but for an instructive glimpse at how misguided human activity can affect the environment, consider Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time.”
Here’s the short version: In the 19th century, the Great Plains, a vast swath of our country’s mid-section from Canada to Texas, was covered with grass that had evolved to thrive in the region’s heat, cold, high winds and periodic droughts.
In the latter part of the century, the Plains’ enormous herds of buffalo were replaced by cattle. Around the time of World War I, encouraged by government homesteading policies, pie-in-the-sky land developers and the skyrocketing price of wheat, thousands of farmers moved to the Great Plains and plowed up the sod that had held the soil in place for millennia.
The 1920s were comparatively wet years on the Plains. Dry land farming flourished in regions that ordinarily receive fewer than 10 inches of rain annually. But a devastating drought began in the early 1930s and the hard winds blew, as they always had. One hundred million acres were stripped of topsoil, producing the period’s apocalyptic images of land and people destroyed by blowing dust.
In fact, it’s difficult to express here just how destructive this episode was to a significant part of our country and the 2.5 million people who were forced off the land. But if Sen. Inhofe can’t see the future in our own past, it’s a failure of imagination. Our biggest threat isn’t our climate; it’s our denial.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.