Just days before the midterm elections, we got the latest alarm: The globe is heating up like a griddle, and we’re just lolling here like eggs.
This happened Sunday, when a U.N. panel issued what the New York Times called its “starkest warning yet.” But while the report made headlines, it didn’t make the campaign. Like other big issues being shelved for some later, scarier day, climate change wasn’t high on the agenda, especially for Republicans.
In a recent story in the Times, Coral Davenport described the maddening tendency of top Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, to deflect questions about greenhouse gases and volatile weather patterns with some version of the cop-out: “Well, I’m not a scientist.”
No, they’re not. But there are estimable ones all around Washington, D.C., and the rest of the sizzling globe, and they’re happy to share their wisdom. The U.N. panel did precisely that, cautioning that a continued failure to reduce emissions of those gases would yield “food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinctions of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year,” as the Times’ Justin Gillis wrote, laying out the stakes. They couldn’t be graver.
President Obama used his executive authority earlier this year on a plan to cut emissions some. But Congress has been largely useless, with a relationship to science that toggles between benign neglect and outright contempt. And many Americans have a similarly curious attitude, distinguished by woefully insufficient gratitude for the ways in which science has advanced our country and elevated our lives.
On the one hand, we’re enthralled by the idea and occasional romance of science. We certainly love it in our popular entertainment. The most-watched comedy on television is “The Big Bang Theory,” which showcases physicists. Their social fumbling is lampooned, but their brainpower is revered.
The biggest event of the fall movie season is the space extravaganza “Interstellar,” which opens this week and is so chockablock with sophisticated physics and rife with cosmological argot that Time magazine assigned a cover story not to a Hollywood reporter but to the senior editor who supervises science coverage.
And Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” has become a veritable cultural icon.
But look at the title of his new book on evolution, also out this week. It’s called “Undeniable,” because, yes, there are many Americans who still deny what Darwin and other scientists long ago proved. They elect mysticism over empiricism.
And you can’t chalk that up to religious fervor alone. Plenty of Americans without any strong religious beliefs opt not to vaccinate their children, ignoring the ironclad scientific arguments in favor of doing so. Plenty reject the virtues of pasteurization and feed their children raw milk. Plenty spend lavishly on herbal supplements and alternative medicine, defying physicians and deciding when myth suits them better than actual fact.
But that kind of fickle approach to science is most troubling in the people who make our laws. As several bloggers and journalists have noted, some Republicans say they’re not qualified to address global warming even as they opine readily and expansively on Ebola. They fault the appointed “Ebola czar” for not being a doctor, then reject what actual doctors tell us about the disease.
If they had proper regard for science, politicians in both parties would fight harder against the devastating cuts to federal research that have happened under sequestration, endangering medical progress and jeopardizing our global leadership. And lawmakers trying to prove their fiscal prudence wouldn’t irresponsibly smear all scientific inquiry by cherry-picking and theatrically denouncing the most arcane, seemingly frivolous studies the government has funded.
If science held the sway it should, onetime Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri wouldn’t have bought into and mentioned his ludicrous theory that “legitimate rape” precluded pregnancy, and flamethrower Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, might have to surrender his florid homophobia, which is reliant on his fantasy that same-sex attractions are some whimsical “personal choices.”
And with the right fealty to science, this next Congress would be forced to accept the overwhelming consensus on climate change and take action. It’s time to wise up and stop wasting all the knowledge we have.
Frank Bruni writes for the New York Times News Service.