Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” provides a timely reminder that junk science once compelled Americans to commit ruinous acts against nature. “Rain follows the plow” was the conventional wisdom of yesteryear. The mere act of turning the soil in the Great Plains would be enough to produce sufficient rainfall to sustain a comfortable farming life, or so the theory went.
That’s all the purveyors of Manifest Destiny needed to hear, and so Native Americans and vast buffalo herds were removed with brutal swiftness. Then it was up to the land speculators and other hucksters of the day to sell ancient grasslands as an agricultural wonderland. As it turned out, there was a reason few people lived there, and Mother Nature delivered a decade-long reminder during the Dirty Thirties.
Fast forward to today, and we have mounds of research that shows human activity is altering the climate. But it’s gathering dust.
Every relevant scientific academy concurs, but it isn’t politically correct to do much about it. Potential profits triggered the tragic plowing of the Great Plains. The prospect of losing money has sparked successful attacks on climate science.
The Heartland Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute and others like them spread information that consistently raises doubts about global warming. Their funding comes from individuals and industries that would be hurt if the government were to ever act. It’s similar to the campaigns waged on behalf of Big Tobacco when the link to cancer was denied with a straight face.
In a 2007 Pew Center Research Poll, 63 percent of Republican respondents said there was solid evidence of global warming. Three years later, 53 percent said there wasn’t. Among tea party adherents, 70 percent are nonbelievers.
When President Barack Obama first took office, many corporations had already signed up for a partnership with the government on how to deal with the problem. Cap and trade won out over a carbon tax, because that strategy had the free enterprise elements businesses prefer. But the bill was stymied in Congress, and Obama didn’t put up much of a fight.
Then Hurricane Sandy hit, and now many East Coast Americans are beginning to wonder whether this is their future. BusinessWeek quickly came out with a cover story on global warming urging leaders to act. The article noted what scientists have been saying for years: While no individual storm can be linked to global warming, an amped-up climate is going to deliver more unusual weather.
U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., is the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. He calls global warming a hoax. U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who is the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is a moderate who used to work on bipartisan emissions bills. But, recently, a “Frontline” reporter asked him, “Do you think climate change is causing the earth to become warmer?” He replied, “I’m sorry, I’m just not going to answer that.”
Meanwhile, Democrats might as well be changing the subject, because they haven’t made the issue a priority.
Insurance actuaries don’t need votes; they look at the data and adjust rates accordingly. They are treating global warming as a fact. Transportation planners would like to do the same, but they rely on political processes for approval. They’re worried that future bridge, rail, highway, shipping and mass transit projects are not being adjusted for the inevitable impacts of climate change.
The campaign against global warming has effectively cowed politicians, but nature isn’t going to knuckle under. Rain didn’t follow the plow. Policy hasn’t followed the science. Our descendants will curse our selfishness.
Wayne Lewis, who was a child of the Dust Bowl, summed up the lesson in the documentary: “We want it now, and if makes money it’s a good idea. But it isn’t necessarily a good idea if the thing we’re doing is going to mess up the future.”