Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: The politics of climate change

I would like to commend The Tribune for its editorial strongly urging opposition to Proposition 23 (“Prop. 23 is wrongheaded about climate change,” July 18). Proposition 23 would suspend (though it would effectively kill) landmark legislation that California passed to address climate change.

The Tribune correctly points out that Proposition 23 seeks to do so by exploiting fear among voters. That the proposition is funded by oil interests and supported by groups who receive funding from such interests is another important piece of information.

The Tribune also helpfully points out that our county is currently undertaking many necessary efforts (such as working on a climate action plan and a sustainable communities strategy) to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, to reduce vehicle miles traveled and to plan for more efficient land, energy and water uses.

Still, there remains in our county, state and nation many political hurdles to the kinds of action we need to take to make the progress that climate scientists deem essential. As I see it, there are six impediments that decision-makers and policy advocates face as we go forward.

1. The first one is obvious, and it is that recession, and the terrible hardships it has imposed on so many, renders environmental issues less salient. It is natural and reasonable that more immediate concerns such as employment and paying mortgages and health care bills would overwhelm one’s commitment to most any other issue.

But it is disingenuous and crude to exacerbate people’s anxiety by telling them needed environmental regulation (or regulation of any kind) is only going to make their lives worse. The irony is that the financial crisis and all the havoc it has wreaked were caused by a lack of regulation in a variety of economic sectors.

2. Another, and somewhat related, impediment to climate change claiming the attention it requires is that climate change is still somewhat abstract in the minds of many citizens. They know that damage is already occurring, they’ve seen the photo of the polar bear stranded on the ice floe, but the consequenc-es of climate change are gradual, and much of the data is highly technical.

Charts, models and scientific reports simply do not motivate the average citizen. This is one of the terrible paradoxes of most environmental dilemmas. We often mobilize to action only in response to devastating effects.

3. Of course, the apocalyptic scenarios linked with climate change also have a way of losing their effectiveness and diluting the public’s attention. I join with those who believe there needs to be more emphasis on the innovation of opportunities that come from a more proactive response to the problem.

There is a reason why the lion’s share of capital venture investing continues to be centered on clean and green technologies. There is a reason why the president has increased the grant funding for research and development in this field. There is a reason why so many universities, including Cal Poly, offer an increasing number of courses and programs focused on sustainability and the transition to a greener economy.

4. Yet, as Proposition 23 demonstrates, exploiting economic anxiety and spreading misinformation has a powerful effect on a vulnerable public. Add to this those whose distortions of climate science are ideologically motivated, and it’s no surprise that in a country that has a disappointingly low science literacy rate, all of these “merchants of doubt” have been treated in the media as credible counterpoints.

5. At the same time, there has too often been a lack of straight talk about the true costs and sacrifices of moving away from a carbon-based economy. To accomplish this fundamental transition in how we produce and consume energy is an enormous challenge. It will not be easy, and it will not be cheap, but the health of the planet is at stake, so we would all do well by having better informed and more candid and mature discussions that would enhance public understanding while inspiring greater commitment.

6. Finally, one of the more depressing impediments to greater progress has been in-fighting among environmental activists. Most climate scientists believe that we are already too far behind in taking necessary action, yet we see frequent and destructive disputes over the deployment of wind farms or solar plants or other industrial-scale energy projects that do not emit greenhouse gases.

While we should not encourage the haphazard placement of technologies, it is simply not realistic to argue, as some do, that we can replace our current base-load energy sources with rooftop solar. The more we impede the technological progress of renewable sources, the easier it is to keep relying on coal and imported oil.

I remain optimistic that both locally and statewide, we can continue to pioneer efforts to address climate change and reject cynical and selfish attempts like Proposition 23 to mislead.

I remain optimistic because the alternatives are inaction and nihilism, which, despite their recent rebranding in some quarters as forms of patriotic activism, are actually the means to an end we have a responsibility to prevent.