Facts are irrelevant: Rhode Island conservatives on Climate Change

sheldonwhitehouse50th-555x297On any given day the editorial page of the Providence Journal is likely running a letter, commentary piece, opinion piece or editorial denying the very real facts regarding the extremely strong science underlying the scientific consensus on climate change. The consensus is clear:

…the Earth’s climate system is unequivocally warming, and it is extremely likely (at least 95% probability) that humans are causing most of it through activities that increase concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, Anchor Rising, the conservative answer to RI Future, run by frequent Bob Plain TV sparring partner Justin Katz, went gaga over the story of “a global warming expedition to the Antarctic getting frozen in place by pack ice” because a boat stuck in the ice somehow proves global warming isn’t real.

For me, today’s piece in the Providence Journal was the last straw. Steve Goreham, in a piece entitled “Freezing in an era of global warming?” states the following nonsense in the face of all credible science,

The greenhouse effect is a natural effect, and man made influences are small.

It should be noted that Goreham is “executive director of the Climate Science Coalition of America” a right-wing Libertarian think tank and subsidiary of the Heartland Institute, which honed its craft in science denialism by questioning the links between cigarette smoke and cancer.


For an example of the kind of “science” the Heartland Institute promotes, one needs to look no further than last May’s “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” campaign in which pictures of Charles Manson, Fidel Castro and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski were pictured along side the above quote. In a press release the Institute lied, “Scientific, political, and public support for the theory of man-made global warming is collapsing. Most scientists and 60 percent of the general public (in the U.S.) do not believe man-made global warming is a problem… The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.

So much for reasoned debate.

Steve Goreham wants you to think, as head of a group that calls itself the “Climate Science Coalition of America” that he is himself an expert scientist in this field. He’s got a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA. Trusting him on climate science is like trusting an astrophysicist to do brain surgery. Sure he’s got seemingly impressive credentials, but not in the relevant field.

Chris Mooney went after the elusive reason people don’t believe in science and facts in a Mother Jones piece a couple of years ago. In the “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” Mooney explained that we humans are prone to a number of cognitive biases, and these biases seem to be working overtime on the ProJo editorial page and at Anchor Rising.

In general, we are all beholden to “motivated reasoning” the tendency to come to conclusions before the facts are in, and then search for facts that support our conclusions. Mooney notes the point made by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, that we “may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers.” We are not investigating problems with the tools of science, we are arguing our cases with the rhetoric of lawyers.

Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan has shown, through a large amount of research, that “people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views—and thus the relative risks inherent in each scenario.” In other words, if you agree with the findings of a scientist, you will accept his credentials. If you disagree, you will call that scientist’s credentials into questions. That’s why someone who doesn’t believe in evolution will deny the reality of the fossil record. No number of “missing links” and fossilized remains will convince evolution deniers.

Facts are irrelevant.

What does this all mean to Rhode Island? As the “Ocean State” we face truly catastrophic climate change consequences. As Greg Gerritt said here on RI Future, “The sea is coming. The issue is not how long can we hold it back for the benefit of home owners, it is how do we adapt to rising sea levels and the slow disintegration of our economy as the climate creates disaster after disaster.”

The forces in Rhode Island that deny the facts of science change will not change their tune until the idea is reframed. Mooney provides a possible road map in the last paragraph of his piece:

Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a “culture war of fact.” In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.

Then again, 200 evangelical leader wrote a letter to congress last year “urging for climate change legislation to be passed on religious grounds” and Representative Michele Bachman responded by calling climate change “all voodoo, nonsense, hokum.”  Pope Francis seems inclined to support the science, but conservative Catholics seem as unfazed by this as they are by his economic pronouncements.

Ultimately it is up to our political leaders here in Rhode Island to start taking this issue seriously, and it is our responsibility as citizens to hold them to this path. We talk about our responsibility to future generations, but unless we are willing to seriously come to grips with the reality of Climate Change, we will have failed them.

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Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

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"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu

"There comes a time when neutrality and laying low become dishonorable. If you’re not in revolt, you’re in cahoots. When this period and your name are mentioned, decades hence, your grandkids will look away in shame." - David Brooks

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