When We are Not A Thermostat: Climate Change and Political Progress

I was in the car listening to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” when one of the questions was about 2014 being the “hottest year on record.” It gave me pause as my husband and I raced down I-35 towards Waco, because I realized that the story wasn’t drawing expected reactions. It was getting laughs, as WWDTM usually does, but there was a kind of resigned air to the jokes about ignoring climate talks or clean energy needs or the rapidly rising temperatures.

And it makes me wonder: have we become accustomed to thinking that climate change or energy policy is the perennial “doomsday” scenario and in the process made ourselves immune to the data when it presents itself?

This Washington Post story, for example, looked at how scientists are reacting to 2014’s temperatures. And indeed, some scientists suggest that we shouldn’t be tempted by a doomsday clock or read too much into one year’s temperatures. Professor Kim Cobb from the Georgia Institute of Technology wrote, “The fact that 2014 represents a new record warmest year is, in isolation, not particularly remarkable. A single year of record-breaking temperatures does not prove the existence of anthropogenic climate change, just as a single relatively cold year does not disprove it.” And Pat Michaels at the Cato Institute noted, “Whether or not a given year is a hundredth of a degree or so above a previous record is not the issue. What IS the issue is how observed temperatures compare to what has been forecast to happen.” In particular, Michaels is among several scientists who note the discrepancy between computer modeling of Earth’s temperatures over time and the recorded temperatures in 2014 - and, in fact, 2014 was cooler than the models suggested.

And other scientists, like Gerald Meehl at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, note that “2015 may not be warmer than 2014, but over the next decade it will likely be warmer on average than the previous decade. This is a product of how the climate system responds to ever-increasing amounts of human-produced CO2 in the atmosphere.”

“Stewardship means more than merely thinking about the future.”

All these quotes aside, I want to think about the resignation that may lurk for us behind the conversation. It is easy in political life to get used to issues that never seem to go away: immigration reform, education reform, taxes, elections, oversight, economic growth. And there is necessarily a sense in which it’s true that we confront issues again and again as generations change, as governments offer different solutions, as the fabric of our civic life outside of the strictly political shifts and evolves.

But I want to argue that we shouldn’t be resigned to jokes about climate change or hottest years on record, about global sea level rise and beaches in Greenland. I think, if anything, the jokes on WWTDM should make us aware of something we have forgotten, something all too important: the consequences of what we do in the environment will become different problems for the next generation.

We might pass on the same debates about immigration or health care or state’s rights, but our decisions about how we treat the environment simply won’t exist in the same form in 10 or 20 or 30 years. Because our choices aren’t just adjusting a giant thermostat up so that our children can adjust it back down. Instead, Congress in the next twenty years will confront questions of managing irrevocable changes to sea level and biodiversity, to shrinking aquifers and freshwater resources, to changing storm patterns and frequencies.

I don’t believe we should ever be resigned about the perennial problems of politics. But we most especially should not, and I would go so far as to say, cannot be resigned about climate change, because the world we live in now won’t be the world we bequeath to someone later. The decisions we make about carbon dioxide will shape the very questions and problems faced by the next generation.

Stewardship means more than merely thinking about the future. It means knowing the spaces we inhabit are affected by us in ways that we can’t see or predict, and knowing that it is our responsibility to be imaginative about the world we might be passing on. So whether 2014 is the hottest year on record or merely one of them, whether we should worry or celebrate about computer model discrepancies, whether we laugh at all or just a few of the jokes on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! - we should not assume we will simply pass on these challenges to those who come after us. The world doesn’t linger as it is forever.

-Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies in bioethics and the philosophy of the human person. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog:http://thewildlove.wordpress.com chatting on Twitter and Instagram at @hilaryyancey.