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Climate Change, Information Sources, Political Priorities

My colleague Rod gives a good overview of the GOP’s information-deficit problem — I had actually drafted a post on this myself but it’s unnecessary now. Everyone’s talking about it. But here’s a related question: if conservatives (conservatives of certain kinds, anyway) are learning how misinformed they have been about the political tendencies of this country, might they then be willing at least to ask whether they have been equally misinformed about — here it comes — climate change?

If significant climate change is coming, then, as Noah Millman explains today, it’s going to cost us:

Climate adaptation is going to require a lot of money. Not impossible amounts of money, but real money – the kind of numbers we threw away on our Iraqi adventure. And we’re going to be spending that money not to improve the productivity of our economy, which would increase our national wealth, but to prevent disasters that will otherwise severely deplete our national wealth. We’ll be spending more just to stay in place, in other words. Which means we can’t just put it on the credit card and not worry about it. We have to think in terms of trade-offs.

Moreover, it’s going to mean taxing people who are less-likely to be affected by rising sea levels and more severe storms, to pay to protect people who are more-likely to be so affected. Which means, if it’s going to happen, we’re going to have to think of ourselves as one country, and not just a collection of squabbling constituencies.

I have several relatively disconnected thoughts about all this:

1) If such climate change is occurring — and for the record I have no doubt that it is, for reasons clearly laid out by Jim Manzi some time back — then, as Noah says, it will have enormous costs, so this ought to be near the very top of everyone’s political agenda, right?

But as my friend Wen Stephenson has recently pointed out, even left-leaning journalists who believe wholly that global warming is coming and is going to have catastrophic results act as if it’s no big deal, leaving it pretty far down on their list of journalistic priorities. Once Wen himself decided that climate change was going to mess with the world in major ways, he basically re-oriented his whole career to deal with the issue. I’m not saying that everyone should do that, but shouldn’t more people be doing that? Shouldn’t journalists in particular be elevating the story to greater prominence? If in a few years New York City starts looking like Venice does right now, they’ll feel pretty foolish for neglecting the biggest issue of their time.

2) Again, if global climate change is happening, it will do great damage to some parts of the world — even if, as skeptics often say, it’ll make other parts of the world more livable. This should especially be a conservative issue, shouldn’t it? Aren’t conservatives concerned to preserve and transmit what God and our predecessors have given to us, to care for and improve what we have rather than just dream of some supposedly ideal future where everything is different and better? So any conservative who does believe that the earth is getting significantly warmer needs to make that a major concern, yes?

UPDATE: My friend and colleague Noah Toly reminds me that Roger Scruton is thinking along these lines — I have Scruton’s book but haven’t read it yet. I need to.

3) But of course, many will say that that’s a moot point, either because they believe that climate change isn’t happening or that its effects won’t be economically and culturally significant. Okay: but it’s worth remembering that we all have an enormous investment in believing that. If climate change is no big deal, then we don’t have to change our way of life, we don’t have to figure out ways to pay for the damage it does, we can just go about Business as Usual.

But in much the same way, Romney supporters were heavily invested in believing that Nate Silver is a sissy and therefore his polling is wrong. Now, there’s no necessary connection between misinformation in one area (political polling) and in another (climate change); but if you’re getting all your data from one narrow set of sources, and those sources have misled you about some very important matters — well, then, it’s reasonable to inquire skeptically into those sources, to reassess their reliability on other matters as well. Further investigation never hurt anybody; and in general we should always be wary of people who tell us what we want to hear.

4) On a different topic, sort of: Noah’s post is really good on the costs that we’re going to face, and emphasizes that Americans will need to think of those costs in “we” terms. But as he hints, here’s where the Red State-Blue State rhetoric presents a new set of threats to national unity. Some liberals have made much of the fact that in relation to the federal government blue states are givers while red states are takers. But many of the worst effects of climate change are going to happen in blue states, which could reverse the revenue flow. I wonder how conservatives and liberals alike would respond to that.

UPDATE 2: Here’s how bad things can get: Jen Howard on Twitter informs me that global warming could destroy the world’s coffee supply! Who cares about the drowning of New York — Where’s my triple grande latte?? Surely this is a cause we can all get behind….

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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