Thomas R. O'Donnell

Moniz: Mother Nature could persuade climate change deniers; will it be in time?

In Government, University research on May 9, 2016 at 12:10 pm
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz talks to reporters in Ames, Iowa, on May 6, 2016.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz talks to reporters in Ames, Iowa, on May 6, 2016.

For a while now, I’ve puzzled over something: Why does a segment of the population – and an even larger portion of Congress – disavow the evidence for anthropogenic (human-caused) global climate change?

Weather records show temperatures are increasing, with each year seeming to set a new record. Oceans are rising. Violent storms, droughts, wildfires and other weather-driven phenomena are happening more often and with greater force. Scientists who study the climate overwhelmingly agree we’re changing the atmosphere for the worse.

So why do so many people deny the evidence? And, more importantly, how do we change people’s minds and get them to take action before it’s too late?

I don’t have many answers and my small forum can’t do much to correct the situation, but last week I talked to someone who does have answers – and the power to do something about it.

When U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz came to Iowa, I got a moment to ask him about this. While his answer was reasonable, it was a bit disappointing.

Before I go too far, let me restate something: The company I work for is a DOE contractor. I try not to let work and blogging mix, but the paths are crossing a bit here. What you read here are solely my views and do not represent those of my employer.

Moniz was here to open the Sensitive Instrument Facility at the Ames Laboratory, a DOE research center Iowa State University operates on its campus. I’ve written before about the SIF and how it’s engineered to eliminate vibration, and about the high-powered microscopes and other tools it will house.

Moniz’s other major duty was to deliver the ISU commencement address on Saturday. On Friday, he also met with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and held an energy policy forum.

I was in the sun with dignitaries and Ames Lab employees when Moniz spoke at the SIF on Friday. Afterward, I asked him: How do we get more of the public – and more importantly, far-right members of Congress – to accept and deal with climate change?

(By the way, one of the people Moniz and others must try to convince is Steve King, the congressman representing Ames and western Iowa. King was at the dedication and spoke briefly, praising the research it will produce. One wonders how he stands on the DOE, which some Republican presidential candidates have said they would abolish.)

Moniz’s answer: The weather will do the convincing.

“The majority does support the idea of taking action,” Moniz said, but not everyone believes tackling climate change should be high priority. “Nevertheless, I do want to emphasize the foundation of recognizing change,” he said. More “fact-based, science-based education” is needed to add to that foundation.

Perhaps more importantly, “I believe Mother Nature will keep speaking to us – louder and louder” with more unusual weather events. “That’s been happening. That’s why the polls have shifted in terms of recognition of climate change.” The evidence will become too convincing to ignore.

Unfortunately, Moniz added, the pace of devastating droughts, floods and fires will only increase until humans “bend the curve” to slow the rate of warming. “We know there is a lot of inertia in the system that is baked in” – that is, even if greenhouse gas pollution were to stop today, the levels already in place will continue to raise temperatures for years and cause “further effects to which we will have to adapt.”

A third factor, Moniz said, also is increasing acceptance for climate change action: Clean, low-carbon energy technologies will continue to drop in price, “as they have been for wind and solar and LEDs. That’s going to continue and it’s going to happen in other areas, like advanced biofuels, to name one example” – an important one for Iowa.

“So it’ll all come together, in my view,” and when Congress finally does take action, “my expectation is it will happen fast,” Moniz said, pointing to the record on acid rain. In the 1970s and 1980s, “there was a long period of questioning the science,” but the signals of plant and forest damage from coal-burning power plant emissions “got stronger and stronger and then at some point everybody said, ‘It’s going to happen. Let’s get to the table and negotiate.’” That led to the Clean Air Act of 1990 and significant acid rain reductions.

“I’m being optimistic,” Moniz concluded. “I think we’re going to get there in terms of Congress taking some action, within a relatively small number of years.”

That was about all I had time for before the public relations woman peeled Moniz off. I appreciated his attention, but his response left me with more questions.

Will action come too late?

Yes, a majority of Americans accept the evidence that Earth is warming and human activity is a major cause, as a 2015 New York Times article reported. Even a small majority of Republicans surveyed supported action, but the same article also notes: “The stark partisan divide on climate policy will still make it difficult for President Obama and his successors to put in place the energy and climate policies that will be needed to support a robust international agreement” to slow climate change.

If education and evidence were enough to change minds, lawmakers would overwhelmingly back regulations and programs to promote clean energy and limit carbon emissions. But there’s a corps of Republicans who see climate change as a plot to control Americans and get grants for a bunch of freeloading scientists. With encouragement from political donors, they’ve bought the carbon fuel industry’s faux science and predictions of economic disaster. And that corps has leverage to block significant action to slow climate change. If Americans elect a Republican president, it will be at least another four years, or more, before Congress takes the matter seriously.

It’s Moniz’s job to be optimistic. He doesn’t gain much by blasting do-nothing, science-denying hard-right Republicans. But I believe he’s too sanguine about how soon positions will change. Climate change denial has taken on a tribal quality. Adhering to one point of view or another becomes accepted among members of particular groups – a political party, a family or a set of friends. Denying the prevailing view could lead to painful separation or exclusion. It’s too much to risk, so most people cling to their beliefs against all evidence.

Of course, Moniz is correct that clean energy technology is becoming so inexpensive – and such a substantial industry in itself – that it weakens the economic argument to ignore climate change. Regulations become less expensive to implement and consumers become less resistant to change.

But I worry that Moniz also is right about Mother Nature – that it will take more frequent extreme weather to force action. By the time evidence becomes irrefutable, it’s also likely to be too late to forestall even worst effects. As Moniz said, much of the change we face already is “baked in” to the greenhouse gas levels we have now. When extreme climate becomes so bad it’s undeniable, we’ll also be unable to stop even more dramatic effects – longer droughts, bigger floods, major population dislocation, deeper food shortages and prolonged war and misery.

“A relatively small number of years” could be a long time for climate. Our best hope is electing representatives – and a president – who take the issue seriously enough to act immediately.

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