Climate change denialism a chilling indictment of Washington ignorance

The People’s Climate March and United Nations Climate Summit have showcased the global community’s promising commitment to averting total catastrophe. The scientific consensus on human-induced global warming has been overwhelming for some time. But as any evolutionary biologist will tell you, the correlation between scientific consensus and public opinion is unreliable. A 400,000-person march is a good sign that many are aware of the situation’s gravity and are willing to do something about it. Combatting the rise of atmospheric greenhouse gas levels also requires governmental action in addition to citizen involvement. Unfortunately, the United States Congress is populated with a manner of ignoramuses.

Some are bought and paid for, some are merely stupid or cowardly. Together, they espouse climate denialism and their collective lunacy is a serious danger to almost all life on earth.

Science blogger Mark Hoofnagle describes denialism as “the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none.”

These tactics range from conspiracy theory––wherein peer review is one big get-rich plot on the part of climatologists––to the straw man argument, where denialists purposefully misrepresent climate science, or use their own misunderstanding to their advantage.

The degree of willful ignorance in the House of Representatives stretches the limits of credulity. In a 2009 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus cited Bible verses Genesis 8 and Matthew 24 as evidence against human-influenced climate change. After quoting verses in a manner that one would quote a credible study, he asserted, “I believe that’s the infallible word of God and that’s the way it’s gonna be for his creation.”

The punch line is that Shimkus is now the chairman of the House Energy Subcommittee on Environment and Economy. Denialism is so endemic because it is insulated from any reasonable discourse. Thousands of studies mean nothing to a person who believes issues of environmental policy can be determined by scriptural interpretation.

Then there is campaign finance, the other deity every American politician is expected to worship. So far this year, the total expenditure for oil and gas lobbying is $67 million. This is not new information; avarice is a cliché of modern American politics. It does explain, however, why climate change denial is more prominent than other forms of reactionary pseudoscience like anti-vaccine or evolution denialism.

Greed and ignorance account for the incredible delusion in Congress; climate deniers receive a large stipend for staying in their fantasy realm of liberal egghead conspiracy.

The present atmosphere in Washington is dire and embarrassing, but not hopeless. For those of you going into science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, don’t isolate yourself from non-scientists. Make sure others know how to spot charlatanism when they see it. We can only expect to have scientifically competent representatives if voters meet the same standard. Better science education at the primary and secondary level is the obvious answer.

This is only a long-term solution. Working against global climate change is urgent. The tobacco industry waged a similar denialism campaign in the latter half of the 20th century. Despite massive spending, big tobacco has taken a considerable hit while the public has been won over by the evidence. As future researchers, policymakers and citizens, we must do what we can to ensure the cult of climate denial meets the same end. Then our government can join the rest of the world in confronting the menace of climate change instead of ignoring its existence.