American Reason: The Hazy Debate

American Reason
The problem about the climate change “debate” is that the nation can’t even get past this initial stage of agreeing about the facts on the ground.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global land temperature has increased by about .188 to .315 degrees Celsius per decade since 1979. This may not seem like much, but it has resulted in a melting of arctic ice equivalent to half of the area of the United States. With obvious changes to growing cycles and extreme weather events, why isn’t there more of a national discussion on possible ways to curb this problem?

Matt Sowada: I find the topic of climate change to be an especially frustrating one to discuss at a very basic level. Intellectually honest rhetoric begins with an agreement on basic facts, and then discussions about the ramifications of those facts. For example, in the past we have discussed gun violence in this country. Now, we had some pretty big disagreements about what needs to be done about gun violence, but we were also fairly ignorant of some of the basic facts. Neither one of us had a clear idea about the scope of the problem, so we did some research and saw that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that about 11,078 murders a year are committed by someone using a gun. We agreed that because the CDC bases its reports on high quality scientific data it is a reliable source (it’s an organization that both Democrats and Republicans trust to provide data) and went on to argue about what that number means.

The problem about the climate change “debate” is that the nation can’t even get past this initial stage of agreeing about the facts on the ground. As late as last March, Gallup polling found that a majority (a horrifying 57%) of Republicans don’t believe that there is a scientific consensus on the existence of global warming. The obvious source for reliable data in this instance is the scientific body that studies climate change, the IPCC, and they could not possibly be clearer on the existence of climate change. Republicans can’t participate in a discussion about the future of climate change because most of them are ignorant of the present.

Vik Patel: Why is it that most Republicans deny the existence of global climate change despite the overwhelming evidence? Usually that question would be followed by an explanation of conservative focus on related economic issues or the poor state of science education, but the real problem deals with the way many in the environmental movement talk about the past. Throughout the history of the environmental movement, very prominent figures like Aldo Leopold have advocated a return to harmony with nature in response to the harm that we have been doing. This may come as a shock to some of our readers; there has never been a time where we lived in harmony with nature. Before the 20th century, we struggled against the dangers of the natural environment so much so that the average person only lived for a little more than 30 years. Thanks to modern technology and accessible energy, we have been able to overcome environment perils to where the average global life expectancy is now nearly 70.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that we have not been harming the environment; in fact, we have been doing great harm to it. I am also not saying that climate scientists have been advocating a return to a ‘harmonious’ life, they have been simply reporting their findings. However, to much of the outside world, climate scientists’ voices end up being mixed with those in the environmental movement who advocate for a return to an unreal harmonious life. This, unfortunately, undermines the credibility of those who are accurately stating the great damage that we do to our world.

MS: It’s also worth pointing out that the “pre-modern” world is a current reality for millions of people around the globe. It’s great that the United States has started to take steps towards establishing a green energy industry that can compete, but we have to remember that we burned billions of tons of fossil fuels to build the infrastructure thats making this transition possible. It’s incredibly hypocritical and unrealistic to expect growing nations around the world to go without the advantage of inexpensive (although dirty) fuels that we used so capriciously over the last century. Unfortunately, I think the only option we have is to continue to push for the development of environmentally friendly fuel sources here at home and hope that increasing energy costs render the use of fossil fuels prohibitively expensive at a global scale before irreparable damage is inflicted on the planet’s ecosystem.

VP: You’re right, it is hypocritical of us to demand that developing nations refrain from using fossil fuels to develop their economies; However, using prohibitive prices to restrict use of fossil fuels would cause lifestyle changes similar to those of the pre-modern life described above for large parts of the world. The solution is not to wait for expensive carbon, but to make renewables less expensive. If we focus on how we can create a harmonious and prosperous future instead of adopting either real or perceived past behaviors, then we will be able to bring all parties together on climate change.

Vikram Patel and Matt Sowada are the friendly adversaries behind the twice-weekly ethical debates series, American Reason. Listen on KRUI every Sunday from 4-5 p.m., and find an archive of the shows (as well as exclusive web-only content) online at