Over the weekend, President Obama gave the graduation commencement address at UC–Irvine. I found the talk fairly uplifting—that’s usually the point of such speeches—but the part I liked best is where he took on anti-science global warming deniers in Congress.
You can read the full text at Daily Kos, and the entire speech is on YouTube. My Slate colleague Daniel Politi made a few comments on the speech, but I want to add my voice, and point out some things that are relevant to the current state of affairs when it comes to science and the attacks upon it.
Here’s the video, and I’ve cued it to start where the president addresses global warming:
That was a thing of beauty. He hits on a lot of the topics I’ve been writing about for a while, and covers them well. Let me point out a few highlights (transcripts from Daily Kos).
Now, part of what’s unique about climate change, though, is the nature of some of the opposition to action. It’s pretty rare that you’ll encounter somebody who says the problem you’re trying to solve simply doesn’t exist. When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it wouldn’t be worth it; it was going to be too expensive, it was going to be too hard, it would take too long. But nobody ignored the science. I don’t remember anybody saying that the moon wasn’t there or that it was made of cheese. (Laughter.)
That’s a pretty good analogy, but as climate scientist Michael Mann—himself the target of outrageous slings and arrows of anti-science—pointed out on Twitter, a better one is comparing global warming deniers to those who claim the Moon landings were faked. Both twist evidence, both ignore facts, and both find themselves on the wrong end of reality (and sometimes on the wrong end of an astronaut’s fist).
Obama went on:
And today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change. They will tell you it is a hoax, or a fad. […]
Now, their view may be wrong—and a fairly serious threat to everybody’s future—but at least they have the brass to say what they actually think. There are some who also duck the question. They say—when they’re asked about climate change, they say, “Hey, look, I’m not a scientist.” And I’ll translate that for you. What that really means is, “I know that manmade climate change really is happening, but if I admit it, I’ll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I’m not going to admit it.”
This is precisely right. In May, Republican House Speaker John Boehner stated that he “wasn’t qualified to debate the science over climate change.” That is a craven, disingenuous pile of bovine feces. As I pointed out before, that’s why we have experts. If you talk to actual, real, working climate scientists, they’ll tell you there is no scientific debate over global warming. The only debate is manufactured, created by fossil fuel interests literally using the same tactics that were used to lie to Americans for decades about the safety of tobacco.
It doesn’t matter that Boehner is not a scientist. What does matter is that the Republicans in the House cherry-pick the people they listen to, just as they cherry-pick the people to testify when they hold hearings on global warming. And without fail, the people they choose are deniers or downplayers of various flavors.
Obama then hammers this home:
Now, I’m not a scientist either, but we’ve got some really good ones at NASA. I do know that the overwhelming majority of scientists who work on climate change, including some who once disputed the data, have put that debate to rest. The writer, Thomas Friedman, recently put it to me this way. He were talking, and he says, “Your kid is sick, you consult 100 doctors; 97 of them tell you to do this, three tell [you] to do that, and you want to go with the three?”
Here he’s talking about the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the planet is warming, and humans are the reason. The deniers have tried mightily to argue against this finding, but all they wind up doing is blowing more hot air.
Finally, the president makes a point that I find extremely compelling, and one I’ve made before as well:
The fact is, this should not be a partisan issue. After all, it was Republicans who used to lead the way on new ideas to protect our environment. It was Teddy Roosevelt who first pushed for our magnificent national parks. It was Richard Nixon who signed the Clean Air Act and opened the EPA. George H.W. Bush—a wonderful man who at 90 just jumped out of a plane in a parachute—(laughter)—said that “human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and unprecedented ways.” John McCain and other Republicans publicly supported free market-based cap-and-trade bills to slow carbon pollution just a few years ago—before the Tea Party decided it was a massive threat to freedom and liberty.
Again, he is precisely right. Republicans have historically been very supportive of science, and that only changed when they merged with the Religious Right in the 1980s. This political move soured the party to a lot of science and laid the groundwork for fossil fuel interests to start sowing doubt about global warming. And now we are reaping what they sowed.
This anti-science belief is quite literally destroying our environment. And in my opinion, it’s the opposite of the American ideal. As a country, we’ve always faced problems like this head-on, accepting them, examining them, and then doing what we think is right to fix them. That doesn’t always work, and there are many times when the darker side of human nature has guided us down the wrong path. But we don’t have to let that happen, and we cannot let that happen this time.
When President Kennedy announced we would go to the Moon, that was a seemingly insurmountable task. But with brains, guts, and fierce determination, we not only did it, we beat Kennedy’s deadline.
This problem of global warming is technologically no more difficult. We can reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, we can change the way we consume energy, we can create new methods and new technologies that will not only help save our planet, but spur innovation at the same time. The people who face this problem, who tackle it with gusto, will be the ones who will lead us into the future, and will get rich doing so.
Those who deny the problem will be left behind. At our best, facing the future and working toward it is at the very heart of what Americans do.
Let’s be at our best.