- Denying evidence we don’t like only intensifies problems and undermines solutions.
- The more obvious and expensive our changing climate has become, the greater Republican denial and resistance to doing anything about it.
- Years of inaction have made solving our climate crisis more difficult, leaving us with no time to waste.
- Dr. Steven C. Amstrup is the chief scientist for Polar Bears International.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
I was raised in a conservative Republican home with strong beliefs in free markets. My dad was raised on a North Dakota farm, where success depended on hard work and independent problem-solving skills. I grew up believing that government intervention in our personal lives should be limited to things we cannot effectively do as individuals, such as law enforcement, national defense, and protecting the public from unfair business practices and negative externalities.
My upbringing emphasized data-based decision-making – seeking the truth and adhering to evidence, rather than simply trusting what someone might say or write – no matter how bully their pulpit. Thus, my family took pride in America’s scientific leadership, from agricultural improvements to creating the polio vaccine to landing on the moon, and my parents encouraged my interest in biology from my earliest years.
My trust that the Republican party can uphold its once-proud legacy, however, has waned over many years and has now totally collapsed. The current party philosophy seems to be: “If you don’t like something, simply say it’s false” If you don’t like the evidence that Trump lost the 2020 election, no worries, just insist it isn’t true. If you don’t like the serious threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, just claim it isn’t real. If you don’t like the fact that a reliance on fossil fuels is dangerously warming the world, simply deny it. And when challenged, don’t produce evidence, just become louder and more shrill.
The Republican party of my youth is no longer recognizable.
It would be nice if the rest of us could simply deny news that we didn’t like. My wife has MS, and my mother is suffering loss of vision from a rapidly advancing macular degeneration. I’d love to be able to claim both diagnoses are not true and wish them away. My life’s work confirms the extinction threat facing polar bears. I wish that simply denying global warming could save them.
But that world, of dangerous and unsupported fantasies, is not the real world in which we live. My work experiences leave no doubt the threats of global warming are real. During the early 1980s, when I became Polar Bear Project Leader for the US Geological Survey, I could stand on the northern Alaska shore in late summer and see the sea ice just off the coast. Now that same sea ice, where polar bears used to feed all summer, has retreated hundreds of miles offshore. I still shake my head as I realize the magnitude of the change that has occurred in only a few decades.
Sea ice is essential to polar bear survival because they can only reliably catch their main food source, seals, from its surface. In essence, the platform of ice is their dinner plate. When forced ashore by melting ice, polar bears must live off the energy in their fat reserves until the ice forms again in autumn. Longer ice-free seasons, driven by global warming, are stretching the limits of those reserves. In a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, my colleagues and I determined the timing of when prolonged ice-free seasons will begin to push polar bears beyond survival limits. We showed that without swift reductions in climate warming emissions, polar bears will be absent from most of their current range, including Alaska – their only American home – by the end of this century.
The polar bear’s dependence on habitat that literally melts as temperatures rise makes the risks of global warming easy to understand. But it’s not just about polar bears. In ecology, all things are connected. The impacts of global warming in other ecosystems, including our own, are more complicated than the polar bear’s relationship with melting ice, but the catastrophe unfolding in the Arctic is coming to us all in the form of more severe droughts, floods, wildfires, and generally erratic weather, like this year’s unusual winter storms.
Human migration in response to climate change is already a global challenge. With unabated warming, human occupation of large parts of the globe will become impossible, and the economic collapse that follows will create migration pressures on a scale never before seen. Only the very rich are likely to survive the warming that is in store if we do not act swiftly. But, if we halt global temperature rise in time to save polar bears, we will prevent the worst of global impacts on us all.
Climate catastrophe will affect Democrats and Republicans
I’ve long been troubled by the Republican party philosophy that believing in human-caused global warming is a partisan position. Global warming is not about belief at all. It is about the laws of physics and scientific evidence.
It has become increasingly clear that if societies do not halt global warming, none of our other societal and environmental concerns will really matter. Yet the more obvious and expensive our changing climate has become, the greater has been Republican resistance to doing anything about it. This, even after Nobel Prize-winner William Nordhaus showed that a big part of the solution could lie in free markets – a historic bastion of Republican platforms.
After four years of inaction on this most serious of issues facing us all, we now have a Democratic administration that is playing catch-up to head off climate disaster before it is too late. But a large contingent of Republicans still deny the problem exists in the first place, despite the evidence all around us.
Denial of the evidence will not eliminate my wife’s MS or save my mother’s vision. Neither will it negate the physical laws that require the world to warm as long as atmospheric CO2 concentrations rise. Denial will not save the climate to which life on Earth has become accustomed and in which humans have flourished – and it will not save polar bears.
The preamble to our constitution states that a main purpose of our government is to promote the general welfare. Denying reality clearly does not abide by this founding principle, and it is not part of the can-do, reality-based Republican philosophy with which I was raised.
The recent trend among Republicans to simply dismiss everything they don’t like as “fake news” takes denial to a disturbing new level of fantasy. It’s dangerous to our democracy and to our planet, and it’s a leap too far for me to make.