The science and politics of global warming

Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming by Joshua P. Howe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)

howeEveryone knows that the climate is changing and that the effects upon the world we know are unnerving. Sea ice is melting, ocean levels are rising, deserts are increasing in size, plants and animals are finding it difficult to survive in their traditional locations. Long-term effects upon human populations are unsettling.

Even though these changes are widely recognized, many people deny the scientific consensus and even more people resist efforts to counteract climate change? This is the state of affairs in the United States that Joshua P. Howe discusses in his book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. His purpose is to answer the question: “How can our science be so good and our policy response so incommensurate to the scale of the climate threats that scientists have identified?” (ix)

Howe’s purpose is to describe the complex array of political, environmental, and economic powers that are intertwined with scientific knowledge and guidelines concerning environmental pollution, its causes, impacts, and solutions. When we understand these varied, competing forces, we may be able to develop effective programs to save the planet.

The curve in in the book’s title refers to a graphic display of CO2 measurements that Charles David Keeling made at Mauna Loa from 1958­–1971. These measurements show a steady, smooth rise in the amount of this odorless, tasteless gas in the atmosphere. The steady rise showed that an earlier scientific consensus concerning CO2 was incorrect. The oceans and other natural features did not reabsorb this gas, and instead the negative effects were increasing.

Interest in atmospheric conditions became more important with the detonation of atomic weapons and in the complex political tensions of the Cold War. Howe describes these interactions both in the United States and on the international scene. He devotes a chapter to the rise and fall of the SST, the supersonic airliner that finally was set aside both because of its negative effects on the atmosphere and its great cost.

He explains how traditional environmentalists resisted the politicizing of these issues, thus creating a rift with the scientific community. He provides a detailed accounting of international conferences, agreements, and treaties aimed at curbing pollution. He describes the shifting political currents within the United States that have made it difficult for U.S. political leaders to embrace the more demanding international agreements.

Throughout the book, Howe often refers to “the forcing function of knowledge,” which holds that “a better scientific understanding of the problem of climate change would force appropriate political action” (9). Howe characterizes this “overweening faith in the power of science to inspire political action” as a top-down approach to establishing new policies.

It is difficult to believe that more science can force environmentally sensitive policy. Howe convincingly shows that with respect to climate change and everything related to it, the top-down approach has and will continue to fail. The reason? Because “the science-first approach has at times actually undermined the kinds of moral and political discussions that many global warming advocates, ironically have relied on science to foster” (203).

At book’s end, however, Howe does offer a glimmer of hope, a bottoms-up approach to solving the climatic challenges facing us. He bases this hope on the “real desire to build better, healthier, and more responsible communities.” He refers to climate action plans that are beginning “to use the mechanisms of municipal, county, and state government to shoot for the middle.” Local initiatives “give communities a chance to reorganize themselves as if the abstract global climatic good mattered to everyone, every day. This is something new” (206).

I wish that Howe had given us one more chapter with representative examples of this bottoms-up approach in action. He could have included examples from his own city (Howe teaches at Reed College in Portland, Oregon), with its emphasis upon public transportation and discouragement of private automobiles in the central city, and with the serious efforts to infill the old city and resist urban sprawl.

Even more important, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election, would be suggestions on how the bottoms up approach could work in regions of the United States, such as the coal mining states, whose way of life is in the cross hairs of the conflict between the science and politics of global warming.

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