Yesterday I had lunch with a group of educated, influential women, one of whom has a Ph.D. in computer science. Her job involves creating computer models for application to particular scientific questions. Somehow the subject of global climate change (GCC) came up, and one of the women expressed doubt: “They say the climate fluctuates naturally,” she said. “Maybe the temperatures would be rising, anyway, even without human interference.”
I glanced at the scientist, and she rolled her eyes. She simply drew a graph in the air—a simple 45-degree line showing the dramatic upward trend of global average temperatures in recent decades—and said, “That’s not natural.” Then, not wanting to spoil a good lunch by arguing, we moved on to other subjects.
After our recent discussion here about GCC, I was wondering why almost all the books recently published are about “debunking the myths” about GCC and most of the ones I read in the 70s and 80s are out of print. (Another great book I neglected to mention, incidentally, is Extinction, by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, first published in 1981.) As we were leaving, I asked my scientist friend why the people who knew best weren’t writing books about GCC anymore. “Once something’s established as fact,” she said, “people aren’t interested in ‘if.’ There’s no ‘if’ any more when it comes to climate change—just ‘when?,’ ‘how much?,’ and ‘what can we do about it?”
I see what she means. Among educated, scientifically oriented people, GCC is an accepted fact, and what we know about it is implicit in discussions of many things, from politics to polar bears. Rational people have long since stopped talking about “if.”
The same thing is true of other subjects about which facts have been tortured to death in recent years for the sake of politics: evolution, the efficacy of torture, the safety of children’s vaccines.
In the public discourse in America, we’ve continued to use the same terminology in recent years, as the right has drifted further and further toward the fringe and as sane fiscal and social conservatives have tended to get mixed up in the public mind with celebrities of spite like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and numerous clueless members of Congress. That seems unfair, because I believe there are thoughtful, intelligent, reality-oriented conservatives out there who might have something to contribute, if only they weren’t continually shouted down by the loudest voices representing ignorance and extremism.
So I propose that we dust off that good old word “reactionary” and put it back to work. Let’s start calling deniers of GCC, evolution, and Obama’s American citizenship “reactionary.” Let’s help them find their own identity, with others who believe that the government is plotting to take away their guns and socialize medicine and education. Then let’s use the word “conservative” to mean what it used to mean—rightfully and responsibly concerned about things like government spending and what “freedom of speech” should mean in a technological world.
How about that—wouldn’t it make things simpler?