In October 2006, The New Yorker magazine, the repository sooner or later of all human wit and knowledge, printed a prophetic cartoon on the subject of climate change.
By the veteran cartoonist Gahan Wilson, it showed an older couple sitting on their porch. The man is reading his newspaper, and although little is shown of him, his bald head and furrowed brow make him appear grumpy, as if he were reading without the help of a sense of humor. (There’s a lot of that going around.)
The woman, presumably his wife, is looking out on the landscape, which is utterly parched and barren – a climate-change apocalypse. “It’s a pity those awful people were right about the environment,” she says.
Those awful people, yes, and we all know their identity. In the estimation of climate change deniers, they are not only the scientists and environmentalists, but also ordinary people like myself — and with luck, yourself – who like a nice tree even if the urge to hug it is usually repressed.
In the eight years since that cartoon was published, the evidence that we the awful people are right has come with increasing regularity, more’s the pity. Wild and dangerous weather, as predicted by climate change theory, has afflicted various parts of the world. Polar ice is melting, the ocean levels are rising and various species are adapting to the new normal, the old abnormal.
But the one species that hasn’t adapted are the grumpy old people on their porches — or in their living rooms, more like it, when the 100-year storms turn up early and make porches uninhabitable. Why should they believe the evidence of their eyes when they have their own politicians and pundits telling them otherwise?
The deniers do believe in science — it’s a libel to suggest otherwise — but the science they believe in is political science. Their political science tells them that the vast majority of the world’s scientists are magically in cahoots in order to impose socialism on the world and limit freedom.
This belief is where it all starts. It’s not about the few outlier scientists in the business of creating fig leaves to cover the shameless nudity of the philosophical body of denial thought. It is not about the evidence those mercenaries turn up, the anomalies they seize upon to try and set aside the whole general theory of climate change.
No, it is about the elephant in the room — unfortunately, the Republican elephant that has made Dumbo of many of its handlers and followers. This elephant never forgets that climate change is all a socialist plot and so believes only such evidence that can fit the political preconception. To their shame, some Democrats make donkeys of themselves on this issue too, but the elephant leads the parade.
But why? How can people keep believing in something that is so illogical, runs athwart the growing reality of the world and that is so obviously political science and not real science?
Embarrassment, I suppose. If you have been heavily invested in the idea that environmentalists are ghastly, it is hard to turn around and say they have been proved right, especially if you are not sitting in a porch but right in the public square where Fox News may hear you.
But I have another theory. One of the good things about conservatives has been their strong belief in personal responsibility, but it appears they have lost sight of that. Today too many think personal responsibility is limited to not being on welfare.
Actually, personal responsibility is being responsible for your own actions, period. We know that pollution kills people in communities – with cancer, with asthma, in all sorts of ways. Yet some can’t grasp that dumping garbage into the air ever since the Industrial Revolution could kill the planet.
How strange this is. Many deniers go to church and honor the creator God but they cannot see their personal responsibility in cleaning up the mess humanity is made of His creation. They cannot see it even when Mother Nature comes down as if bearing the wrath of the Almighty.
When does the lobster figure out what’s going on with the boiling water and the pot? When does the hard-shelled denier look up from his newspaper or TV and see what others see?
The politics of denial is writing the obituary of the planet. Cause of death? Stupidity. What a pity. How awful that it won’t seem like a funny cartoon when it happens.
Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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