Not with a bang — not with a clear rejection of the science or with some nihilistic decision to burn more coal and oil anyway. But instead with whimpers of confusion, apathy and inertia.
The debate has gotten tiresome. In every response to new lies and sophistry, we trot out the same boring answers. The truth hasn’t changed much, other than getting scarier and more certain. It may be stranger than fiction, but it’s not as nimble.
It’s impossible to combat with every made-up “scandal,” every supposed “smoking gun” of the great “hoax” of global warming. Every response to the lies and sophistry spawns more lies and sophistry. Until each imperfection — any flaw in any study, even the human frailties of one or two scientists — is spun into “proof” that climate change is a big hoax. Until we arrive where we are now.
The stories have built toward their intended end — more of a swamp than a climax. The anger of some breeds doubt among many. Together, they sap the political will to do something. In politics, the status quo wins with confusion.
I cannot quite grasp the anatomy of reaction elsewhere — in Europe, say, or China. But here I understand it. So long as the oil companies remain in the shadows, the scientists are King George and the deniers are, well, the Tea Party.
Myths are elegant. They smoke out reason. A virtual consensus among scientists is made to seem like arrogant gasping. Growing frustration among scientists over inaction in the face of mounting evidence is recast as self-righteous moralism.
The grasp of climate change denial is more difficult for me to fathom. One would think that most people knew better than to be won over by obvious manipulation, that most people would distinguish between the authority of science and the yammering of political operatives.
For a brief period in our history, an elite club helped us discern that difference. They held the keys to information. They ensured, for the most part, that what was communicated was actual true.
Now, we’ve gone from Walter Cronkite to Glenn Beck. From Arthur Sulzberger to Matt Drudge. From listening to the teacher’s pet give a presentation in the classroom, to hurling insults during recess. What could be more fun! The bully wins. Mockery replaces facts.
A photo of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth sitting in the D.C. snow on cable’s most popular news network — hardy-har-har — is more than enough to muffle the boring detail that heavier snows in temperate regions are precisely what climate models predicted.
There is much wisdom in that approach. Surely, the environmentalists and the media (me, included) spend more energy than we should arguing with the skeptics than describing a vision of economic and ecological revival.
Such talk will go only so far, however. The sad fact is that as long as the fossil fuel industries are able to foist onto everyone the cost of what they’re doing to the climate, they’ll work as hard as ever to hang onto their markets. And when they smell that the threat of placing a price on their pollution is declining, they will move aggressively to snuff competing energy industries in their cribs.
“Clean energy” then morphs into “clean coal” and offshore drilling. And pretty soon we’re back to where we started: Subsidizing carbon instead of placing a price on it.
For months, I didn’t get why the deniers were starting to boast that they’d “won” the argument over climate change. Won? How does one win a debate with nature?
But, for now at least, they have won. Climate change is all around us; yet it’s nearly impossible to say what it has done. Refugees in Alaska? Maybe. Malaria in Florida? Maybe. A hurricane in New Orleans? Perhaps. A blizzard in Washington? Hardy-har-har.
The crisis is like the primer on a paint job. It’s there, but for the most part invisible. By the time the rot has set in, "I told you so" just sounds obnoxious.
By then, the debate will have moved on to engineering the atmosphere, to funding seawalls, to keeping out endless streams of refugees from hard-hit nations. Worst of all, we still may be paralyzed from acting while a cascade of ever-changing conditions keep us off-balance. Our society could become as unstable as we have made nature.
If you believe the climate science, this ultimately is what you fear. If you are in full denial, you think I am a messianic fool for predicting Armageddon. If you sit in middle and think nothing of it, I do not understand you.