Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Denier Equals Birther

Only time will tell, but every once in awhile it's possible to sense a pivot point, and Monday may turn out to be one.  It may have signalled the turn, if not the end, of the media treating the "debate" over the reality of the Climate Crisis as unsettled.

This has long frustrated those who see the reality of the Climate Crisis as long settled, and as requiring action.  Why did the news media insist on treating as credible the rantings of the deniers, the same folks who deny the science of evolution, promoted and financed by the same interests who once insisted that tobacco is good for you?

On Monday, the Washington Post carried an editorial  titled Climate change denial becoming harder to justify, which cited the recent statement by the relatively conservative (in the old sense)  National Academy of Sciences that declared the Climate Crisis a settled matter requiring immediate action.  "Climate-change deniers, in other words, are willfully ignorant, lost in wishful thinking, cynical or some combination of the three. And their recalcitrance is dangerous, the report makes clear, because the longer the nation waits to respond to climate change, the more catastrophic the planetary damage is likely to be — and the more drastic the needed response."

This is significant partly because the Washington Post has routinely carried columns, op-ed pieces and stories that in fact took the deniers' claims seriously, and in the analysis of climate scientists, did so based on deceptions and bad science. 

But it was not the most important editorial of the day.  For the Washington Post is a favorite Rabid Right whipping boy for being a liberal elite newspapers, even though it has been more conservative than not for decades.  It was instead the editorial in America's Newspaper, USA Today.

That editorial partly resulted from some real journalism that USA Today did.  They showed that a key study that Climate Crisis deniers often cited was based not on research but on plagiarism--that, in essence, it wasn't science but a political screed.  As one result, the journal that published this supporting study has withdrawn it.  (It's true however that USA Today was mostly confirming what climate blogs had previously exposed.)

But the study in questions wasn't about the science of global heating itself--it purported to show that climate scientists colluded in their studies, and therefore questioned whether their conclusions were valid--and whether the Climate Crisis is real.  This has been an often repeated refrain since 2008, when the federally funded study first appeared.   The statistical researchauthor was from George Mason University--which was recently described as being virtually owned by one of the deniers' financers, Charles Koch.  His work has been evaluated by a Carnegie Mellon expert as having faulty data and being more of an opinion piece.  This is only the latest refutation of claims against climate scientists.  None of the major allegations have been upheld.   

The USA Today editorial cites both this scandal and the National Science Academy report in asserting that climate change is "a threat that too many members of Congress, most of them Republicans, have decided to manage by denying the science. That head-in-the-sand approach avoids messy discussions of higher energy prices, but it just got harder to justify."

That sounds like the Post's language, but USA Today took it a step further, referring to the scandal and the report: "Taken together, these developments ought to leave the deniers in the same position as the "birthers," who continue to challenge President Obama's American citizenship — a vocal minority that refuses to accept overwhelming evidence."

The USA Today editorial is the official voice of the newspaper, though it "balances" it with an "opposing view."  But if that formula takes hold--that denier=birther--then the change in perception may be quite sweeping.

 Even though I was a battered party to the debate over smoking in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I can't pinpoint the moment when the social consensus shifted decisively.  But today there's really no one who credibly asserts that the scientists who have claimed for decades that tobacco is a killer are wrongly colluding, and just wrong on the facts.  And there are none who effectively oppose efforts to banish smoking from public places.

We may not reach that moment in regard to the Climate Crisis. Even if such a moment is at hand, it may be too late to save civilization, though our responsibility would still be to try. But acknowledging the reality of the Climate Crisis can at least allow preparations to be made to deal with its coming effects, while we try to save the future. Those efforts can bring new meaning to our society and culture.  This may turn out to have been a meaningful step in that direction.   

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