Lines in the Sand

Two respected voices articulate where the climate debate stands.

In an interesting bit of symmetry, two highly admired figures in their respective spheres have simultaneously issued pronouncements on climate change that illustrate the seismic shifts under way in the larger public debate.


One of those shifts is on the political landscape. It was reaffirmed this week after long-time moderate-conservative Republican Senator Senator Richard Lugar was defeated by a Tea Party challenger in the Indiana Republican primary. The dwindling number of moderate Republicans who hold elective office probably nodded grimly in agreement after reading Senator Lugar’s concession statement which included this:

Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc.

Lugar went on to decry the increasing partisanship of both major political parties, but he zeroed in on the various ideological pledges that Republican officeholders are now routinely expected to accept. (He hasn’t always done so, and that’s seen as being one big reason for his primary defeat.) But Lugar’s reference to the current Republican stance on climate change may have even been charitable. For rejection of climate science and any climate legislation has now become part of GOP doctrine.

The Republican Party’s hardened position reflects, or perhaps reinforces, the attitudes of Republican voters who are now increasingly suspicious of climate science and dismissive of climate change. This development has undoubtedly widened the partisan gap on climate issues, leaving little political space for constructive (much less nuanced) debate on climate change.

Meanwhile, on the scientific landscape, NASA climate scientist James Hansen has just published an op-ed in The New York Times that also defines, and some might say narrows, the parameters of debate. He writes:

The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.

Some climate scientists vehemently dispute such unequivocal, sweeping claims.

Additionally, Hansen repeats his “game-over” predictions for the world’s atmosphere if Canadian oil sands are fully developed, leading New York University faculty member and science journalist Dan Fagin to tweet: “Respect Hansen a lot, but hate his #climate lingo. Not a game, and it’s not over, no matter what happens w/#tarsands.”

Nonetheless, Hansen’s latest pronouncements on recent extreme weather events and oil sands dovetail with the prevailing opinions of high profile and influential voices in the climate concerned community. In effect — and because of his stature — Hansen’s rhetoric in his Times column amplifies larger memes in the media that have come to shape climate discourse.

So Republicans have their narrative, and they appear to be sticking with it. And on the science landscape, if Hansen’s marker in the Times is any indication, the “game over” and extreme weather narratives are becoming equally established.

Regardless of whose narrative prevails — the Republican dismissal of climate change or the climate community’s ratcheting up of alarm — there can be no doubt that each serves a political purpose. Where that leaves the ultimate political and policy outcome remains clouded.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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9 Responses to Lines in the Sand

  1. RickA says:

    Hansen is directly contradicting the latest report from the IPCC on extreme events, which said no direct attribution for these events could be made to global warming.

    What does he expect – that Canada (and the entire world) will stop drilling for oil because of his activism?

    We will keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.

    At least once we hit 560 ppm, we will be able to directly measure climate sensitivity and determine once and for all what the correct answer is.

    That will at least have a positive impact on the science of climate change, modeling and allow for better forcasting in the future.

    • Eli Rabett says:

      The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Climatologists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

  2. Jack Hughes says:

    @Keith – what would this “debate” look like between group A who are convinced that the climate gods are angry and group B who don’t think there are any climate gods ?

    • biff33 says:

      More relevant: What would a debate look like between Group B who claim that any warming will result in a large net positive feedback, and Group A who ask for the evidence of it?

  3. laursaurus says:

    For rejection of climate science and any climate legislation has now become part of GOP doctrine.

    Climate change was never properly communicated as science. Hansen is Al Gore’s “scientific consensus”. Every line delivered by Al Gore in his script from AIT could have been factually sound and those on the other side of the aisle perceived it as a sour grapes slap in then President Bush’s face. Hansen portrayed it as such, stepping into the role of whistle-blower. Rather than temper their alarmist rhetoric, both of these partisan players continue to ramp it up to more offensively polarizing vitriol. The GOP, and conservatively political Americans were pummeled by the outrageous attack of baseless accusations that any reasonable doubt was funded by Big Oil. That the debate was over. Questioning the slightest of details was the equivalent of denying the Holocaust and as anti-scientific as YEC. Calling people horrible names that impugned their basic moral character created suspicion and distrust. That’s why every inconsistency, rewriting of history, institution-wide policies that put climate scientists uniquely above the law, etc. has only raised further public skepticism.
    And you’re still doing it by framing the GOP as the villains. Climategate II revealed just how much uncertainity was kept from the public. Opportunistic climate change Progressives manipulated the human tragedy of hurricane Katrina to further a political agenda. Now we have a crippled economy forcing society to address tangible, obvious priorities that we should have paid attention to, instead of a vague possibility that just isn’t coming to fruition.

  4. Eli Rabett says:

    Please define with respect to what metric Senator Lugar was “moderate”. The major political issue today is that his party has moved so far to the right that someone who was on the far right of that party in 1980 is today labeled as “moderate” simply because he does not do a daily dump on his opponents on the left. Lugar is civil, but not moderate.

    • MarkB says:

      Please read the quote in italics above. In my grade school, they called it ‘reading with comprehension.’

    • David44 says:

      Eli Rabett -

      While it is true that the Republican party has become more extreme, Richard Lugar has never been on the far right; not now, not in 1980. He is and always has been a voice of reason and accommodation in the Republican party, the nation, and the world. Please provide evidence to the contrary before you defame this fine and noble man who is rightly admired by the saner members of both parties. He is no more a right wing ideologue than Birch Bayh was a radical lefty.

  5. Susan Anderson says:

    It is exhausting to hear our planet’s condition reduced to “narratives”. It was never so. Our planet doesn’t vote, but its actions are well understood by science, despite all the noise and “debate”. The “narrative” and “debate” are nothing but distraction. Time to wake up.