Author Article by Lyric Hale: Climate Change & US Presidential Politics

Republican Presidential Candidates

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney (L) and Rick Perry (R) at the last night’s Republican presidential debate

Last week, top economic commentator Lyric Hale examined the effects of natural disasters on political stability. This week, in the wake of Hurricane Irene, the What’s Next? author looks at the climate change debate in general, starting with last night’s comments by Rick Perry, the frontrunner in the race for Republican presidential candidate.

Article by Lyric Hughes Hale

One of the basic tenets of the American Tea Party is that climate change is “bad science”. Numerous commentators have opined that this evening’s Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in California established Texas Governor Rick Perry as the frontrunner for his party’s nomination. However, his comments on climate change might have made him unelectable in the general election next year. Here is a brief transcript:

JOHN HARRIS (Editor-in-Chief, POLITICO): Governor Perry — Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

PERRY: Well, I do agree that there is — the science is — is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is just nonsense. I mean, it — I mean — and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell. But the fact is, to put America’s economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Perry’s home state of Texas has been experiencing the worst outbreak of wildfires ever, the result of the hottest year in the history of any American state, as well as a record-breaking drought. Did climate change contribute to this disaster? Writer John Burnett quotes Dr. Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, Rick Perry’s alma mater:

“We can’t say climate change is causing the extreme weather Texas is having right now. On the other hand, we can say humans have increased the temperature of the base climate state pretty much everywhere. And what that means is it makes the heat more extreme and increases evaporation from the soil. We can be confident we’ve made this hellish summer worse than it would have been.”

“People who discount the science of climate change don’t do it because they’ve read the science… The science of climate change is a proxy for views on the role of government. From what I understand, Perry’s position is that he doesn’t want government to interfere in private lives or industry. That means climate change — which calls for a government solution; there’s no way for the free market to address climate change by itself — that doesn’t fit anywhere with his political values.”

This is a critical point.

This election cycle climate change, more than socially divisive issues such as gay marriage and abortion, seems to be the dividing line between liberals and conservatives in the United States compared to elsewhere in the world.  In fact, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, 34% of Tea Party members believe that global warming is occurring, versus 53% of non-Tea Party Republicans and 78% of Democrats.

An amusing finding of the report is that “Tea Party members are much more likely to say that they are “very well informed” about global warming than the other groups. Likewise, they are also much more likely to say they “do not need any more information” about global warming to make up their mind.

Governor Perry might have said that the “jury is out” on evolution as well, but there can be no disagreement by anyone that 2011 has witnessed the most severe weather in US history, sadly during a period of economic weakness.  According to Heidi Cullen, senior research scientist with Climate Central, a nonprofit research organization, and author of The Weather of the Future, “Preliminary estimates place the total damage on property and the economy for all weather-related disasters this past year at more than $35 billion. With four months left in the year, we’ve already set a record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters, breaking the old record of nine that occurred in 2008.”

But a sluggish economy and budget cuts are not only hampering relief and rebuilding efforts; they are preventing vital weather research that could mitigate damage in the future that will be increasingly more likely if the climate change camp is correct. Andrew Freedman, managing editor at Climate Central, warned about budget cuts in weather forecasting research a week before Hurricane Irene, which left 46 dead and cost $13 billion in damages:

“At the same time that damage costs are increasing, our ability to monitor and predict weather and climate threats is eroding. Budget cuts are threatening everything from a key weather satellite to the ‘hurricane hunter’ research flights the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flies into fierce storms like Irene. As I wrote in the Washington Post last month, program delays and a lack of full funding for the Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS, now virtually guarantee that the U.S. will be without a key weather satellite for up to a year, starting in 2016, when a polar orbiting satellite is likely to stop functioning before a delayed replacement can be launched. This will mean a decline in the accuracy of many weather forecasts, since this particular satellite provides crucial data that is fed directly into computer models.”

If climate change is indeed causing more severe weather, then reducing our forecasting capabilities seems suicidal.

In its present incarnation, the US Congress seems to care neither about prevention, nor cure.  In spite of widespread destruction, the focuses remains on cutting the budget.  Representative Nan Hayworth, a Tea Party congresswoman from one of the hardest hit areas in New York State, decided that she would not approve disaster aid related to Hurricane Irene unless a similar amount was cut from the US budget elsewhere, effectively holding relief funds hostage. She did so as her constituents struggled along with flooded streets, homes and businesses, no power, and warnings to boil their water. Some Tea Party representatives might just get their wish for only one term in office.

I asked Brian Fisher, contributor from Canberra on climate change to our book What’s Next? to update me on the current situation in Australia.  The economy there is enjoying a resource-driven boom, and basically full employment.  Although perhaps not optimal, climate change legislation will likely be enacted next week.

“The minority federal government in Australia will introduce its new carbon tax legislation into federal parliament in on 13 September 2011. The government, with the support of three left-leaning independents and the Greens, has the numbers in both houses of Parliament to pass the legislation. The government has indicated that it intends to force the legislation through the Parliament by the end of October with the new scheme to come into force from 1 July 2012. Whilst broadly characterised as a carbon tax, the legislation will set up the basis for an emissions trading scheme with a fixed carbon price in the early years of the scheme. It remains to be seen whether subsequent Australian governments retain the scheme. Business uncertainty about the way in which Australia deals with climate change policy in the future will persist because the government’s current proposal does not have bi-partisan support.”

Frank Berk, father of a Yale student, and volunteer in the clean-up after Hurricane Irene

Better not hold your breath for the US (or China) to act responsibly and effectively to prevent climate change and environmental degradation.  Citizens will have to do what they can. I spoke with Vermonters such as Frank Berk (left), proud father of a Yale student, as he worked with his neighbors to salvage three houses before demolition deadlines. He told me that the town of Royalton had not received any government aid and expected nothing.  Three days into the flood, he had not seen a single federal or state official.

Just as in 1927, everyone figured that they would have to shoulder the flood burden on their own. Most people carry no flood insurance.  When you buy a home, no one tells you the probability of flooding, earthquakes or hurricanes in your neighborhood. It is pretty hard for an individual to understand the risks.

Victims of natural disasters in Texas,Vermont and elsewhere have been told by champions of self-sufficiency and minimal government that they should pay the costs of foolishly living in the path of a hurricane or a wildfire on their own.  Conservative commentators such as Amity Shlaes even called up the ghost of President Calvin Coolidge, who was born in Vermont.

Back in 1927 when Vermont experienced its previous worst floods, he forsook his native state and offered no aid or assistance. Coolidge himself was badly hurt by statistically improbably event that affected his outlook–his 16-year old son suffered a blister on his foot on the White House tennis courts and tragically died of sepsis a week later.  Afterwards, was Coolidge simply numbed to the human effects of disaster? In any case, he opted not to run again for president, and instead his secretary of commerce won the presidency in 1928.  That was of course Herbert Hoover.

What's Next?

What’s Next?

What’s Next? Unconventional Wisdom on the Future of the World Economy by David Hale and Lyric Hale is available now from Yale University Press.

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