My Road To Damascus: Coming to Terms with Global Climate Change

May 25, 2011 By

I’m a “climate change convert.”  Like many of my fellow conservatives, I was  traditionally skeptical of the science supporting the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis.  Today, I am skeptical no longer.  Like  conservative blogger D.R. Tucker, on this issue, I was ultimately “defeated by facts.”[1] Today, converging arguments have persuaded me that AGW is real and that we must take action to prevent it.

Reading the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was the critical moment in D.R. Tucker’s conversion process.  In my own case, I finally reached a point where I could no longer in good conscience deny the implications of the cumulative weight of so large a body of evidence.

That body of evidence is extensive, and growing.  For example, in 2010 the National Academy of Sciences issued what has been dubbed “‘the most comprehensive report ever on climate change.’”[2] The National Academy of the Sciences report echos many of the same findings as the earlier 2007 IPCC report but “reflect[s] a greater urgency because committee members had an additional five years of research to draw on.”  And in 2010, for the first time, the Pentagon identified AGW as a threat to our nation’s security in its Quadrennial Defense Review.[3] Indeed, just a few days ago, Australia’s  Climate Commission issued a new report examining recent scientific research and concluding that it is “critical” to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade as the economic and ecological impacts of AGW are already beginning to become evident.[4]

Another critical element in my own conversion was the leading roll being played by Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church in articulating the moral imperative to address the threat posed by AGW.   Earlier this month, a working group at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences issued a declaration calling on all people of good will  “to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses.”[5] And the Pope himself highlighted the “problems associated with climate change” and the need for collective action to address them in his January, 2010 World Day of Peace message.[6] Taken as a whole, Catholic thought and teaching on the environment illuminated for me the fact that caring for the natural world, and an ethic of responsible stewardship towards it, were integral components of an authentically pro-life worldview.

In the end, my own extensive reading and research on AGW made the following conclusions inescapable:  today, there is no debate in the scientific community about whether the Earth is warming—it is. There is also a nearly unanimous consensus that human activity is responsible for this warming. There is some debate, at the margins, over the severity of the consequences that will inure from this and whether we can take any remedial measures that will slow, stop, or reverse this process. The consensus position, however, is clear—AGW will probably have a significant negative impact on human civilization and the natural world, and there are practical steps that could be taken now to avoid this fate.  Given the foregoing, addressing AGW today is an ethical and moral imperative.  Failing to do so is a repudiation of our responsibilities both to each other, to the poor, and most particularly, to future generations.  It is a breach of faith, trust, and duty, of enormous magnitude.

Regrettably, while the scientific evidence supporting AGW has become increasingly more persuasive over the past several years, and the need for immediate action ever more apparent, public opinion, at least in the United States, has been trending in the opposite direction.

I think there are several reasons for this.  First, few of us (myself included) possess the technical expertise or knowledge required to independently assess and analyze scientific research, reports, or peer reviewed literature.  As a result, we fall back on pop-culture works, like the thoroughly debunked book “Cool It,”[7] and reports in the mainstream media.  The climate denial industry has exploited this by endeavoring to create “doubt” in the minds of Americans, despite the fact that no reasonable grounds for doubt remain.  Meanwhile, the scientific community has not been particularly effective at communicating the case for AGW in a way that is accessible and understandable to most Americans.  At the same time, the radicalization of the political Right, and the rise to prominence of an extreme form of libertarianism within its ranks, has made opposition to AGW a required tenant of its political orthodoxy.  In other words, our political ideology demands that it cannot be true- therefore, it is not.[8]

The rejection of proven science in favor of a form of ideologically driven magical thinking by the GOP is extremely unfortunate, and unnecessary. As D.R. Tucker has observed, “[i]t does not put America on the road to serfdom to suggest that the federal government has a compelling interest in protecting the country from ecological damage. If anything, it puts America on the road to common sense.”  Similarly, the embrace of climate denialism by the GOP today represents a rejection of the traditional conservative concern for preserving and extending the stability of communities and institutions over time- of stewardship for society.  As David Jenkins has pointedly noted: “The policies being peddled by these folks reflect a live for today-let me do what I want mentality that has nothing to do with the conservative notion of protecting the interests of future generations.”[9]

Given the foregoing, there is a moral imperative of the most urgent nature for all people of good will, and particularly Republicans, to speak out on AGW and the threats that it poses.  Collectively, we must work to better inform the public and expose them to the scientific research on this issue.  In this regard, we should keep in mind Edward Tufte’s use as of the Challenger disaster as a case study in the importance of organizing and communicating complex information effectively.  Here, that means making the case for AGW in a way that is both powerful and persuasive to the average person.  In addition, part of the effort must be a sustained movement by conservatives willing to speak out on climate issues- this is critical to breaking through the ideological prism through which many conservatives view AGW today.  Another element of this effort is networking- there is no reason for any conservative climate change convert to feel alone!   Thankfully, there is an organization for Republicans concerned about AGW, and the anti-science agenda being pursued by loud segments within the GOP- Republicans for Environmental Protection- and I am proud to serve as its Coordinator here in Delaware.

I want to close with a cautionary tale that has deeply informed my own thinking on AGW and environmental policy- one based on the profound implications of remarks made by Dr. Paul Crutzen in his 1995 Nobel Prize lecture.[10] Dr. Crutzen earned his Nobel Prize for  his research on the damage caused to the Earth’s ozone layer by CFCs.  Dr. Crutzen’s lecture includes information  on the roll of chance in determining the extent of human impacts on complex natural systems- one that should cause climate-deniers to pause, and reflect.  In his lecture, Dr. Crutzen noted that, had the chemical industry simply developed “organobromide compounds rather than CFCs” then “without any preparedness” humanity would have been faced with the destruction of most of the ozone layer before the scientific community had the ability to analyze and measure the problem.  Obviously, this would have had a catastrophic impact on life on Earth.  Reflecting on the roll of pure chance in avoiding this outcome, Dr. Crutzen “conclude[d] that mankind has been extremely lucky.”   For me, Dr. Crutzen’s remarks highlight the need for prudence and responsible stewardship in environmental policy, and with respect to AGW.

I am a climate change convert, and I know I’m not alone.  Today, we must work with renewed vigor to better educate the public on the threat posed by AGW, and to build support for policies designed to eliminate or mitigate it.  However, given the scope of threat posed by AGW, time is not our ally.  We need to hurry.  There’s no telling how much longer our luck will hold.


[1] Tucker, D.R. (April 19, 2011). “Confessions of a Climate Change Convert.” FrumForum.  Retrieved from: http://www.frumforum.com/confessions-of-a-climate-change-convert

[2] Maugh II, Thomas H. (May 20, 2010). “National Academy of Sciences urges strong action to cut greenhouse gases.” Los Angeles Times.

[3] Broder, John M. (Aug. 8, 2009). “Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security.” The New York Times. In the Review, the Pentagon noted that Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment. Although they produce distinct types of challenges, climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.” See Johnson, Brad. (Feb. 1, 2010). “Pentagon: ‘Climate change, energy security, and economic stability are intrinsically linked.’” Grist.  Retrieved from: http://www.grist.org/article/2010-02-01-pentagon-climate-change-energy-security-and-economic-stability-a

[4] Shankelman, Jessica. (May 23, 2011). “Australian climate change report bolsters Gillard’s carbon tax campaign.” Business Green.  Retrieved from: http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2072915/australian-climate-change-report-bolsters-gillards-carbon-tax-campaign

[5] Independent Catholic News. (May 12, 2011). “Vatican issues major scientific report on climate change.” Retrieved from:  http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=18215

[6] Retrieved from: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/peace/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20091208_xliii-world-day-peace_en.html

[7] See: Begley, Sharon. (Feb. 22, 2010). “Book Review: The Lomborg Deception.” Newsweek.  http://www.newsweek.com/2010/02/21/book-review-the-lomborg-deception.html

[8] For a discussion of the reasons behind public opinion changes on AGW, see: Merchant, Brian. (May 12, 2011). “Do Climate Skeptics Change Their Minds?” Slate.

[9] Revkin, Andrew. (Mar. 14, 2011). “‘Republicans for Environmental Protection’- Endangered Species?” The New York Times.  Retrieved from: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/14/republicans-for-environmental-protection-endangered-species/

[10] Retrieved from: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1995/crutzen-lecture.pdf

 

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    Author Michael Stafford is a 2003 graduate of Duke University School of Law and a former Republican Party officer from Middletown. He works as an attorney in Wilmington. He is the author of the book “An Upward Calling” on the need for public policy and politics to advance the common good.

    14 Responses to My Road To Damascus: Coming to Terms with Global Climate Change

    1. avatar

      Andye Daley Reply

      May 25, 2011 at 10:51 am

      Mike, your words have a sense of courage and strength behind them! ( not to mention a lot of foot notes)  I stand with you on this issue and I am not afraid to say so! Thank you for your intellect on this matter.. This Republican is tried of those on the left saying I don’t care about my environment! As you do, I care and I care passionately! 

    2. avatar

      Henry Karlson Reply

      May 25, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      Sadly, I think there are too few converts in the US, even though I would think conservatives, if they want to conserve, would see that traditional societies had a better appreciation and understanding of the human connection to the earth. If you have not looked into his work on the environment, I would highly suggest reading what the Ecumenical Patriarch has said; he provides a profound analysis of the situation and shows why the loss of traditional conservative values (morality) really play greatly into the environmental crisis.

      I did an essay in part on his thought, which you can find here: http://vox-nova.com/2011/05/24/render-the-world-eucharistically-to-god/

    3. avatar

      Dana Garrett Reply

      May 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm

      Another great post, Mike.  Clearly, you let yourself be persuaded by the evidence and not ideology. I think that the climate change deniers have a kind philosophical-economical faith that constitutes the source of their denial. I think they believe that reality is constituted in such a way that humans pursing their self interests (without any or little controls) cannot possibly run afoul of any natural laws.  It’s as if there *must be* a preexisting harmony between the primacy of self interest in human affairs and physical law (in this case, those governing the climate). Now that is not an empirical position. That’s a faith position.

    4. Pingback: “I’m a climate change convert.” Why conservatives are changing their minds. http://bit.ly/iyAVG8 By Michael Stafford « cupofcoffeeinarlington

    5. avatar

      Wcarter55 Reply

      May 25, 2011 at 10:03 pm

      Both your and D.R. Tucker’s “conversion” are based on recent events (less than a century). But over the long term the earth has seen a number of cycles of ice ages followed by global warming. The human addition of CO2 is miniscule compared to the amount naturally in our atmosphere—now and in the past. These data have convinced many of us that there may well be global warming but the likelihood there is an anthropomorphic portion is extremely small.

      • avatar

        Smith Jim Reply

        May 30, 2011 at 10:42 pm

        I don’t know where you get your “facts” Wcarter55 about human addition of CO2 being miniscule but nothing could be further from the truth. The rate we are burning fossil fuels is tens of thousands of times (four orders of magnitude, or 10 to the fourth power) faster than those fossil fuels were formed by decay of organic material. The USGS, the world authority on volcanoes, has stated that CO2 emissions from the burnig of fossil fuels are roughly 30 times the CO2 emissions from all volcanoes on Earth combined. I don’t blame you, Wcarter55 for being confused. The well funded (by Exxon/Mobil and others in the fossil fuel industry) campaign of misinformation about climate change had me fooled too. Naomi Oreskes has done a great job of exposing the campaign of misinformation about climate change in her book, “Merchants of Doubt”. If you are open minded please check out the following link http://www.grist.org/article/series/skeptics

    6. avatar

      Terry M. Gray Reply

      May 31, 2011 at 5:44 am

      “Thoroughly debunked…” It appears that you didn’t read the article he cited all the way to the end. But turn-about is fair play. Anyone, including Mike Stafford, Bjorn Lomborg, or Howard Friel, who uses selective and inaccurate citations just to give their writing the appearance of scholarship and more authority, is without excuse. Not that I’m necessarily a AGW skeptic. However, what I do like about Lomborg is that without denying AGW, he draws our attention to other global problems for which we do have the resources, but not the priorities, to solve. I also think that conservatives can grant AGW without going along with all the policy recommendations that the left endorses that promotes more regulation and bigger government.

    7. avatar

      Harry Browne Reply

      June 10, 2011 at 11:43 pm

      From the cranberry cancer scare of the 1950s to the Alar-in-apples hysteria
      of the 1980s, from the “New Ice Age” of the 1960s to the “global warming” of the
      1990s, environmental alarms almost always turn out to be false. Few
      non-political scientists fear ozone loss, global warming, or acid rain. These
      are just issues that some people hope to use to reorder the lives of the rest of
      us.

      As William L. Anderson has pointed out:

      Few among us remember the
      Carter Administration’s Global 2000 Report to the President,
      prepared by the State Department and the Council on Environmental Quality in
      1980, with help from a gaggle of federal agencies like the Environmental
      Protection Agency and the CIA.
      The report, like the
      discredited Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report of 1972 and Robert
      Heilbroner’s 1974 An Inquiry into the Human Prospect,
      predicted mass starvation, massive amounts of pollution, and increasing hunger
      and poverty for all by the year 2000 unless “the nations of the world act
      decisively to alter current trends.” “Decisive action,” of course, was further
      government control of all resources.

      Fortunately, the government didn’t take greater control of our resources, and
      none of the scare stories proved to be even close to an accurate forecast. In
      fact, has any such scary prediction ever panned out?

      Let’s walk down Memory Lane and review some of them. In the 1970s, the
      prevailing wisdom was that gasoline prices would exceed $2 a gallon by the end
      of the decade, and the Arabs would soon own half the United States. In the 1980s
      the Arab threat miraculously disappeared (when the U.S. government removed its
      price controls on petroleum), and the Japanese became the new threat. They, too,
      were about to own most of the U.S. But then the Japanese economy suddenly went
      to pieces — all by itself, with no help from
      the U.S. government.

      And there was the New Ice Age that was predicted in the 1960s. When that
      didn’t come to pass, the alarmists decided that Global Warming made more sense.
      What’s next — dangerously moderate
      temperatures?

      These scares — and many more like them
      — were all accompanied by urgent demands
      that the government take action, reduce the freedom of mankind to wantonly
      destroy Mother Earth, and impose oppressive controls on your life.

      Fortunately, none of the proposals was enacted, and the fearful expectations
      evaporated on their own. So new scares were developed — complete with new demands for government action,
      new designs to reduce your freedom, and new proposals to keep companies from
      providing the products and services you need and want.

      A great deal of what you hear about the future of Planet Earth isn’t science,
      it’s politics. Notice that with every alarm — about global warming, the ozone layer, air
      pollution, dwindling resources, endangered species, or anything else — the preferred solution is always the
      same: more government.

      The most popular scare story today is global warming. This is the idea that
      human beings, by selfishly driving their cars, are releasing carbon dioxide into
      the atmosphere — causing the earth to heat
      up and leading to the melting of the polar icecap, massive flooding, and the end
      of civilization as we know it.

      But over 32,000 scientists — none of whom
      is affiliated with polluting industries —
      have signed a petition to
      the U.S. government that says in part:

      There is no convincing
      scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other
      greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause
      catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s
      climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in
      atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural
      plant and animal environments of the Earth.

      The supposed struggle to save the planet is really a struggle for power — power over your life. So politicians and
      environmental extremists never wait for their claims to be proven before
      demanding to turn your life upside down.

    8. avatar

      Scott A Mandia Reply

      July 27, 2011 at 9:05 pm

      Well stated Michael and kudos for your courage to change and to do so publicly.

      We need to reduce our emissions of carbon for the sake of our public health, national security, and economic competitiveness. Surely it is foolish to base our economic energy needs on sources that are dwindling in supply and increasing in price when, instead, we could move toward energy efficiency and cheaper-by-the-year, infinite sources such as the sun and wind. If we stay addicted to fossil fuels and do not begin investing in those technologies now, we will be buying them from China in the future instead of selling it to them.

      Let us debate about how to do this instead of continuing the “false debate” about whether or not humans are changing the climate.  We can save the planet and make $$$ doing so if we do it correctly.

    9. avatar

      Crenshaw7777 Reply

      February 4, 2012 at 1:13 am

      Sorry, but the facts lead to a simple denial of the AGW hoax.  Belief in global warming is always due to one of two things:  a ideological hatred of all the things that are held up as causes of global warming — which is the root cause of this hoax, so that those hated things can be eliminated — or simply having been duped by the global warmers.  Facts are supposed to lead us out of the darkness and into the light.  That’s why this post is so disappointing.

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