Freedom to Pollute?

Posted on March 3, 2011


Newt Gingrich on the Environmental Protection Agency:

“The EPA should be replaced with the Environmental Solutions Agency, which would incorporate the necessary statutory responsibilities of the old EPA while eliminating the job-killing regulatory abuses and power grabs of the old EPA. This would be achieved by bringing together science, technology, entrepreneurs, incentives, and local creativity to create a cleaner environment through smarter regulation.

Such an agency would create a stronger economy with more American jobs and more American energy, all while protecting human health and the environment. And at a time when Americans are demanding smaller government, the time to replace the EPA with a leaner, more efficient agency has never been better.”

I have neither the time nor the interest to recount the evidence that Gingrich brings forward in support of this conclusion. Suffice to say it consists of a lot of nitpicky complaints about the EPA which, despite their potential validity, are not really all that damning against the organization as a whole. I am far more interested in the ideological language employed by Gingrich. Here’s another example:

“It’s time to get serious about permanently reducing the size of government, and it’s time to get serious about promoting a healthy economy along with a healthy environment. It’s time to replace the EPA.”

Notice the repeated references to the size of government? Gingrich isn’t concerned about the EPA because of its minor abuses of due process. He is concerned because it represents a large government intrusion into private business. If, as the tea party (on both sides of the border) has already decided, the government is going to shrink, then the EPA is destined to become a relic of the big-government past, and should therefore be eliminated.

This kind of rhetoric is very common from opponents of environmental regulation, and has become quite pronounced in recent years as the climate change issue has become less and less scientifically contentious and more and more politically contentious. Effective legislation to curb carbon dioxide emissions is seen as a threat to Liberty, because its enforcement will necessarily constrain the activities of private businesses and individuals.

This is a case where ideology is in direct conflict with science. The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that we are causing the Earth to warm up, and that this will have a large number of nasty impacts on humanity and the biosphere in general. It simply is not worth contesting anymore. Good science says that our emissions, Carbon and otherwise, are harming us, and the tragedy of the commons thought experiment effectively demonstrates that in order to stop this, we will have to impose some constraints on ourselves. Government is the best way to do this. The notion of liberty bandied about by pundits like Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck is in direct conflict with the future material welfare of the species as a whole. We are free to choose our liberty over the health of the planet, but we will quickly find that the laws of physics have very little respect for our high-minded enlightenment ideals.

And yet, because it threatens their narrow self-interest and their ideology, conservatives continue to oppose legislation aimed at reducing our currently suicidal impact on this planet. They are required to dismiss science which would threaten their ideology, but here they run into a problem. Science is, perhaps, one of the last truly universal values in the Western world. Everyone is supposed to be pro-science because science is seen as the thing that gave us all the neat little gadgets we get to use on a daily basis. Unable to reject science but unable to accept its findings, climate deniers are therefore forced to create their own alternative science which allows them to reject the conclusions which are opposed to their ideology while not keeping their faith in modern technological progress. Whence, shit like this.

This is not the first scientific issue on which certain segments of society have chosen to dig in their heels by creating an alternative version of science which avoids the offensive discovery. I am thinking, of course, of creationism. Both use impressive financial and political resources to create an alternative science which avoids conflict with their pet ideology. Both are reduced to grasping at straws in the face of an overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue. The only difference is the ideology being defended. For creationists, it is the literal truth of the bible, while for climate deniers it is free-market economics and American style liberty.

There is, however, a substantive difference in the response offered by real science. Anti-creationism has become a small industry in biology circles and on the blogosphere. Fortunes have been made selling books, TV shows and documentary films to inform skeptics of the best arguments to use should they encounter a creationist. It is a good thing that creationism has been met with such opposition. The integrity of high school biology courses is, of course, at stake.

But there is a whole lot more at stake in the climate change issue than American secondary education standards. If proper action is not taken soon to curb our emissions, we will be condemning millions to death by famine. So why has climate change denial not been treated with the same contempt as creation ‘science’? The scientific consensus for anthropogenic global warming is just as strong as it is for evolution, and the deniers in both cases are equally blinded by their ideologies. The same approach which has had been largely successful in saving American biology textbooks has the potential to contribute to saving millions of lives.

The skeptical movement has evolved far beyond its beginnings in the fight against creationism. It now tackles a range of important issues in which critical thinking gets people hurt or worse. It should expand further. Skeptics should level all their rhetorical guns at the climate deniers. Books, TV shows, and documentaries should be made and re-made to repeatedly drive home the point that climate change is real and it will hurt us if we do not act. The skeptical movement is based on two simple yet powerful assertions: You don’t get to assert anything without evidence, and if there is convincing evidence for a proposition, you have to accept it. Skeptics should combine this thought with the empathy and political will of environmentalists and aggressively take down the pernicious lie that we are not changing the climate. The health of the planet is at stake.