Global Warming: a Social Phenomenon

climate change blue marble

NASA’s famous “blue marble” picture of Earth

RF_alum and I (the Ponderer) are long-standing friends.  We worked together in technical fields at the Rocky Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons facility that has since been decommissioned.  We worked on weapons and in the environmental clean up.   We both encountered our share of people pushing political agendas by misrepresenting science.

While we have much in common, we also have disagreements.  We thought we would disagree on GMOs, but found ourselves in about the same place after doing our independent reading on the subject.  Global warming is a topic that refuses to yield a similar satisfactory result.  Ponderer is a “warmist” and RF_alum is a “denier”.  We both dislike these terms (they present caricatures) but since they are used in popular discussions, we’ll use them, too.

I (Ponderer) am frustrated by the global warming/climate change debate.  There seem to be disagreements on so many levels that it is hard to evaluate what I hear.  I think there are two separate-but-related sets of arguments.

The argument that gets the most coverage concerns “science”.  What is happening and why it is happening?  This debate will (eventually) be settled with facts.  I’ll discuss the science of climate change in a future post.

Today I want to discuss the second argument, one that does not get enough explicit coverage: the social argument.

For many people, climate change is the latest battle in a long-standing war over Environmentalism.  Environmentalists seek to protect natural resources and ecosystems through the political process by lobbying, activism, and education.  The movement started early in the Industrial Revolution.  [Wikipedia]  We tend to forget how severe environmental impacts once were and take for granted the improvements between 1850 and 1950.  It is worth reading two Wikipedia article for the relevant history:  Environmentalism and Anti-environmentalism.

climate change peta trademark lettuce ladies

PeTA’s trademark Lettuce Ladies

Although Americans are still interested in the environment as an issue, it is not a top priority.  Today’s typical Environmentalists come from a subset of the public and are therefore, I suspect, more extreme than in the past.  To capture the waning public attention, they stage bizarre events http://huff.to/1ayqBXO that rightly create skepticism about their motives.  As stated in one Wikipedia quote, they launch “an attack on middle-class American capitalism.”  Or, as a friend said to me recently, “they only want everyone to think badly of man and man’s negative effects on the planet.”

climate change industrial revolution

Early in the Industrial Revolution

But pollution is a real issue.  If your neighbor pours something noxious into the river (or air) upstream from where you drink (or breath), he is unfairly taking something of value from you.  If he is a wealthy factory owner and you are a poor individual, you need a social movement to address your problem.  Environmentalism has brought much good to America.  Our waters and air are cleaner and healthier.  We no longer accept pollution levels currently seen in China.  Here is a less obvious example of Environmentalism improving our lives:  There is compelling evidence that reducing lead pollution, especially removing lead from gasoline, has reduced violent crime.

As I wrote here, to discuss such deeply significant topics, you need a relationship with the person you are talking to.  Unfortunately, the relationship between these opponents is one of long established animosity and distrust, with dirty tricks and hyperbole on all sides.

When possible responses to climate change became a policy issue, these familiar opponents squared off.  Media pundits drew up battle lines, and their saturation of TV and radio has formed the public debate.  Both sides want the same policies they have wanted for the last fifty years, and climate change is simply the current battlefield.  The science is irrelevant.

Most extremist “warmers” and “deniers” are entrenched and unlikely to change.  I hope the rest of us can get past them.  From my perspective:

  • There are three aspects to any problem; physical reality, ethics, and esthetics.
  • We need to understand our problems.  Science helps us here.
  • We need to seek solutions.  Our values and capabilities are vital to this discussion.  (See a book review covering our moral foundations here: http://bit.ly/1aFdtVs.)
  • We need to realize that good people sometimes disagree.

Science is the best method for understanding physical reality.  Unfortunately, as Carl Sagan said, “We have arranged [our civilization] so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.”  What is an intelligent lay-person to do?

In a future post I’ll discuss the science of climate change from my own, amateur vantage point.

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