In late August, Barack Obama traveled to Alaska, becoming the first sitting U.S. President to venture north of the Arctic Circle. He did so to place emphasis on climate change from within striking distance of the North Pole’s shrinking ice cover, whose disappearance could mean, among other dangers, the inundation of major cities worldwide from rising sea levels.
The President’s primary message, repeated four times in a 24-minute speech in Anchorage, was this: “We’re not acting fast enough.” What he only briefly touched upon is why we’re not acting fast enough: because one of the nation’s two major political parties is acting as if the problem not only isn’t urgent, but that it doesn’t exist at all.
In other words, our inaction on climate change is about premise rather than pace. While Democrats are acting in a based-on-a-true-story docudrama, Republicans are acting in a science-fiction fantasy – or, rather, a fantasy in which science itself is fiction.
The play’s second act came in late September, when Pope Francis visited the United States and, according to conservative pundits around the country, had the audacity to wade into politics by speaking out against human-caused climate change. The Pope, of course, had no intentions of being controversial. He was simply stating what he saw as clear fact: that humans are causing climate change, and measures must be taken to curb the use of fossil fuels before the world is, as stated in his June encyclical on the topic, “a garbage dump.”
In stating the obvious, all Pope Francis really did was ignore the warning signs that, in America, supporting proven facts is seen as political. All the pontiff did was choose to continue living in reality.
And in reality, the “debate” over climate change is about as two-sided as a kindergartner insisting to a mathematician that 2+2 equals 3. One party is, simply and completely, just plain wrong. And though seemingly black-and-white political battles have been fought to frustrating stalemates throughout our nation’s history, as the polar ice caps melt we find ourselves polarized in an unprecedented – and ominous – sort of way.
This is because, unlike other divisive issues such as the economy, foreign affairs or even abortion and gay rights, opposing views on climate change do not involve policy disagreements, point-of-reference precedents or religious devotion. The debate over global warming does not involve deep convictions defended, even precariously, by evidence, history, common sense or orthodoxy.
Rather, with climate change we are polarized by something that, for lack of an ideal metaphor, more closely resembles something like racism in its irrationality. Those on the denial side of the fence are, quite simply, completely and utterly incorrect with no defensible reason for being so.
One side is entirely right and has irrefutable evidence, the other entirely wrong with absolutely no alibi – no data, documentation or deity to lean on. Climate change deniers, rather, point to a disparate set of reasons for their disbelief, including baldly partisan “conflicting information” intentionally cherry-picked to obscure reality; a conspiracy somehow involving more than 90% of relevant scientists worldwide; and – a Congressional favorite – a professed inability to gauge scientific findings for lack of being a scientist oneself.
Whether or not this denial is cohesive in its craziness, however, one reality remains: there are no compromises to be won when one party is completely and inexplicably wrong. The mathematician cannot, in good faith, simply decide to split the difference with the kindergartner and agree that 2+2 equals 3½. Facts don’t work like that.
But again, climate change is hardly the only issue where opposing sides can be decisively divided into “right” and “wrong.” Take, for example, gay marriage. Supporters rightly surmise that homosexuality is simply part of nature and, even if it were not, we live in a country where all citizens are supposedly equal in terms of their civil liberties. Most detractors either see homosexuality as a choice – which, whether or not this notion is tied to religious scripture, is simply wrong – or, for those not invoking divine judgment, could use a refresher course on the United States Constitution.
However, a key differentiator between climate change and gay marriage – in fact, between climate change and practically any other issue – is the scale of consequences involved. Though marriage equality is a noble and important cause, the results of its not being permitted are far, far less dire than the global catastrophe that scientists around the world agree awaits us should we fail to curb climate change. Not letting gays wed would be a damn shame; not moving to counteract climate change could be a shame that leaves us all damned.
Because last we checked, inhabitable planets are in severely short supply – a hard fact that makes climate change arguably the most important issue among the myriad mired in political gridlock.
Like perhaps no other issue, the combination of high stakes and reason-less denial inherent in the climate change “debate” can spark a righteous rage in those who agree with President Obama’s assessment that we are not acting anywhere near fast enough. As utterly ridiculous as some other conservative arguments are – for example, the long-disproved theory that tax cuts for corporations and the rich somehow help the middle class – the damage those policies could cause, though significant, is finite.
Climate change is different. It’s too big for us to fail.
Unfortunately (to put it mildly), there is no end in sight to the mindless stalemate preventing us from acting to combat climate change. One side is completely full of facts, the other completely full of something else. The result is a hopeless, non-negotiable and altogether frozen political polarization with our unfreezing polar ice caps – and our entire planet – hanging in the balance.