The Age of Greed: Science Drowned by Politics

by Rena Steinzor

January 25, 2012

Last week, a reporter asked me, “How’s science doing these days?,” “Science” is an impossibly big category, of course, but the answer was easy: “Badly,” I said.

Exhibit number one is climate change. The frightening truth is that no fewer than 84 percent of scientists in this country surveyed by Pew say that the earth is warming because of human activity; 70 percent describe the problem as “very serious.” Although much is made of the supposed “dissenters” on the issue, no one with any educated familiarity with the subject doubts that the vast—and I mean virtually all—scientists with meaningful credentials to understand the subject agree that precipitous climate change is happening and that curbing human-generated carbon emissions must be done to avert disasters so grave we can barely imagine them. Human beings have a hard time making sacrifices today to avert problems that seem remote, but the public’s ambivalence on this subject is reinforced by a steady and effective public relations campaign by fossil fuel companies to make the science of climate change seem fraught with doubt.

I am not willing to argue here that if we could only get the scientific truth straight, we could gallop across the tundra and solve this problem. How to apportion responsibility for sharply decreasing emissions between the developed and developing world is a challenge that may be the toughest we have ever faced. Not only do we lack the policymaking framework for negotiating such changes, but decades of flawed energy policies have hindered and continue to hinder the development of available and affordable solutions. But as long as we are stuck on the science—denying the consensus, elevating the few deniers to a position of equal authority as the well-informed—the short-term, self-serving concerns of a few trump the urgency of the problem for the many.

What leadership can we expect from politicians of both parties as we embark on contentious, high-stakes electoral season?

Last week, President Obama’s campaign released its first campaign spot of the season, focusing on clean energy. The focus is undoubtedly designed to appeal to the “Millennial” and “Gen X” voters who supported Obama the candidate in the last election. A Pew Center poll found that 82 percent of Millennials and 80 percent of Gen Xers favor increased federal funding for wind, solar, and hydrogen technologies. Unfortunately, while about two-thirds of Millennials and 59 percent of Gen Xers believe there is solid scientific evidence that the earth is warming, only 43 and 41 percent, respectively, believe the warming is due to human activity. Wind, solar, and hydrogen technologies seem sleek and clean, but the gripping reason for subsidizing their development is elusive.

Some might applaud the President for talking about clean energy. But to exert real leadership, the President should tie his pursuit of clean energy alternatives directly to the mind-boggling problem of man-made climate change, using his bully pulpit to counteract the extraordinarily harmful misdirection of the public pursued by all of the candidates in the opposing party. Obscuring these well-informed warnings by couching this urgent problem as one of bad-Arabs-having-oil has the intolerable result of shoving science off the world stage.

Nevertheless, despite this opportunistic approach to the problem, the President looks grand in comparison to his Republican opposition. The two leading Republican candidates are not just in denial, they have become vociferous deniers. Both have done breathtaking 180-degree turns on the issue. Mitt Romney flipped from the acknowledgment in his book No Apology that climate change is a real problem caused by industrialization to the stunning pander before West Virginia coal country voters in October to the effect that no one knows what is “causing climate change on this planet.” Newt Gingrich is equally depressing. In what he now describes as “the dumbest single thing I have done in the last few years,” he filmed a television spot with Nancy Pelosi calling for congressional action on climate change. The problem is that he was right on climate then and only far right on the issue now.

Once again, of course, Gingrich and Romney are playing to their base: only 43 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of self-described conservatives believe there is solid evidence of man-made climate change. This crowd is as insistent on its beliefs as it is deaf to science-based counter-arguments.

I have two kids, both now in college. Every few days, I actually spend time thinking about how they will remember my boomer generation, only 32 percent of whom acknowledge that the climate is changing because of human activity. Before they are as old as I am now, my kids will reap the whirlwind of water shortages, famine, malaria, millions of displaced climate refugees, and other horrific damage. Unlike our politicians, they may find no good place to run, much less hide.

Kudos to economist Jeff Madrick who coined the "Age of Greed" phrase.

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Also from Rena Steinzor

Rena Steinzor is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and a past president of the Center for Progressive Reform. She is the author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.

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