Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Mitt Romney Prevaricates on Climate Change

I’m currently writing a dissertation chapter about how the rise of ecological sciences combined with the politics of decolonisation and the return of preservationist mentality shaped the management of national parks in East Africa during the 1950s and ‘60s.  My case studies are two wildlife culling operations: one directed at hippos in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, and the other at elephants in the Tsavo (East) National Park in Kenya.

If you’re still awake, congratulations (I’m told it’s a niche interest), and I promise that this really does all have something to do with Mitt Romney.  You see, given the return of preservationist thought in the context of something resembling global public opinion, making the decision to cull charismatic megafauna like Elephants in particular was a ticklish business, even when the science said that it was necessary.  Park trustees and administrators were never at a loss for methods of prevarication, but one which emerged during these years was The Study.

Faced with calls for culling on the one hand and protests in the international press from animal rights advocates on the other, park administrators often played the “We don’t have enough information yet” card.  In some cases, their desire for more knowledge might have been genuine, but in many cases it was purely expedient, a means of putting off a decision.

So the authorities in question would commission one study after another, apparently intent on exhausting the world’s supply of wildlife experts in the hope that one of them would deliver the answer they actually wanted to hear.

So it is with Mitt Romney and climate change.  Witness what has become the candidate’s stock answer to questions about the threat posed by climate change and the imperative to do anything about said threat: “I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymaker should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences.  However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue—on the extent of warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk—and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation”.

For which read: “I get climate change, I understand that it’s a serious threat, but I’m not comfortable addressing the issue and so I’m going to pretend that uncertainty about the precise effects of that change constitutes an excuse to imperil the nation and the planet by remaining inactive”.  In some respects, Romney’s approach is worse than that of the deniers, because it’s so dishonest.  Whether they believe it or not, those who deny that climate change is a reality come right out and say so, whereas Romney is trying to have it every which way—perhaps the defining characteristic of his business and government careers.

As one commentator noted acerbically, “Sure, scientists are continuing to refine their understanding of climate change—they’re stubborn like that, always trying to improve their models—but there’s no true debate on the extent of the human contribution”. 

It sounds like Romney wants 100% agreement on every facet of the climate change debate before he takes any action on any of it.  So much for the decisive businessman making tough calls and exhibiting firm leadership.  Which is a real pity.  Both because his attitude impoverishes the debate we need to be having about how to address climate change and because it makes a sorry spectacle: the formerly largely pragmatic Governor who prided himself on tackling problems in a serious way and getting things done, now held hostage by a party dominated by people whose mental carapace is unaffected by the barrage of evidence scientists have been sending our way for years.  I very much doubt that Romney believes many of the things he says about climate change and the culture wars, and it’s sad to see someone vying for our nation’s highest office who is so obviously unable to be true to themselves.

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