Republican legislators who attended Pope Francis’ address to Congress were apparently relieved that he didn’t threaten them with fire and brimstone, and that he said that human activity is causing “environmental deterioration,” rather than using the dreaded words “climate change” or “global warming.” What remains clear, however, is that they won’t listen to anyone about this subject – not the overwhelming majority of scientists, not economists, not public policy analysts, and not the world’s most famous religious leader. As Marsha Blackburn, who ranks second on the House Energy Committee, declared, in connection with the pope’s address, “I don't think you will see me being persuaded."
All of this raises an interesting question: Why exactly are the Republicans so determined to ignore reality? Why won’t they listen to anyone? The answer is actually simple: The reality of climate change demonstrates that progressives are right and they are wrong. Not just wrong about the effect of human activity on the environment, but wrong about their basic approach to the problems of the modern world.
Republican ideology is based on the idea of freedom for capitalists (another concern voiced by Pope Francis). For progressives, freedom involves the ability of ordinary people to express themselves, to choose their own level of religious observance and, increasingly, to receive the education and healthcare that they need to function in modern society. For conservatives, it means the ability of property owners and large corporations to use their economic power any way they wish, to determine exactly how they will treat their employees and what they will say to the consumers who depend on the products they produce.
Americans have rejected this approach for over 100 years, perhaps since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. We insist that the way large business enterprises deal with their employees and their customers must be regulated. More recently, we have insisted that the impact of these enterprises on the environment needs to be regulated as well, and that they cannot be permitted to pour poison into our waters and fumes into our air at will.
Recognizing the reality of climate change will necessarily lead to further forms of regulation. That reality emphasizes what physical and social scientists have come to recognize in recent years: that the most recent geological era (usually called the holocene) has ended, and that we are now in an entirely new situation, often described as the anthropocene – the era of human domination. We now decide whether plant and animal species survive or go extinct, we control the drainage patterns of the lakes and rivers, we determine the extent of the forests and the grasslands. Now it’s become clear that we are decisively affecting the basic climate of the Earth – the temperature of the air and of the seas, the patterns of atmospheric and oceanic currents, the size of the polar ice caps, the frequency of violent storms, and the general habitability our the only place where we will ever live. The indelible image that our conquest of space has given us – that of our planet as a small, blue and white ball turning in a void – carries an important message. Because of our technology, we truly hold the Earth in the palm of our hand.
All this means that conservatives are simply wrong. We’ve gone past the point where the large enterprises that determine the health of the economy, our working people, our environment, and now our planet, can be left to do what they wish. Some types of regulation are undoubtedly better than others. Policy analysts may be correct in their recent enthusiasm for more subtle approaches, which rely on inducement, rather more obvious ones that makes use of threats. But we must regulate, we must exercise control over the awesome powers that modern technology has placed in our hands.
People don’t like to admit that they are wrong, however. Children stamp their feet or burst into tears. Adults concoct bizarre conspiracy theories (tens of thousands of scientists, from all over the world, have joined together to perpetrate a hoax), engage in outright denials in the face of overwhelming evidence (Marsha Blackburn says that someone – she won’t say who -- told her that the Earth is getting cooler) and insult anyone who tells them something they don’t want to hear (even if that person is the leader of a religion they’ve been touting as the truth for decades). But the conservatives are wrong -- wrong about climate change and wrong about their entire approach to governing our nation. It’s time for everyone else to stop listening to them.
Edward L. Rubin is Professor of Law and Political Science at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of "The Heatstroke Line," a new novel about the decline of the United States in a future where global warming has taken hold. For more see edwardrubin.com