“I do believe in the Bible as the final word of God, and I do believe that God said the Earth would not be destroyed by a flood.”
—Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), dismissing concerns about climate change
As a general rule, I appreciate the entertainment that America’s ideological fringes provide for their moderate peers. Goodness knows, Stewart and Colbert would be nothing without such characters. Once in a while, though, I briefly reflect upon the terrifying reality that too often, those fringe members find their way into positions of considerable power. As gratifying as it is to mock Rush Limbaugh for his derision of chronic disease—simulating seizures to represent Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease—and other offensive antics, the man still commands millions of listeners (estimates range from 14 to 30 million per program). Fox News might be a cliché scapegoat for liberals, but its “colorful” personalities, from Hannity to Beck, have helped make it the most trusted television news channel, and its average viewership far exceeds that of MSNBC or CNN.
No matter how inflammatory Limbaugh’s, Beck’s or, for that matter, Olbermann’s comments are, I take some small comfort in the knowledge that they cannot directly influence policy. Certainly, their views influence voters, but the pundits themselves are not sitting in Congress. That honor, it appears, goes to an array of candidates much lazier or more inept than most radio and TV personalities. Representative Shimkus made his enlightened remark at a meeting of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment in March 2009. With Republicans now controlling the House, he has officially requested to be the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In the realm of media, the total denial of facts is exasperating, but ultimately expected. Tell people what they want to hear, and they’ll keep listening to you. The same principle applies to politics, with votes instead of viewers. However, in politics the ramifications are far more dangerous. Politicians craft the foreign policy that influences how we interact with the world and the domestic policy that governs most aspects of our daily lives. Each member of the House represents, on average, around 700,000 constituents, and together those 435 individuals comprise half of the most powerful national lawmaking body in the world.
The responsibility such a position demands is huge but not unmanageable. Climate change, while often a partisan issue, is not necessarily so, as evidenced by an eloquent appeal by outgoing Republican representative Bob Inglis for his colleagues to take an honest look at the facts surrounding the issue. My concern with Representative Shimkus is not his religion or even his political leanings, but his refusal to actually consider the data before determining his policy stance.
He is not alone: in the Senate, James Inhofe of Oklahoma used the heavy snowfall that hit the eastern seaboard last year as proof that climate change couldn’t possibly be happening, and the Virginia Republican Party soon followed suit. Even among those representatives who believe the Earth is warming, plenty of them (quite a few sponsored by oil and coal companies) point to the “many scientists” who doubt the man-made origins of climate change and the scale of its potential consequences, using this supposed controversy as an excuse to craft a de facto gag rule on global warming initiatives. A 2009 study by the University of Illinois found that 97 percent of climatologists agree that humans have played a significant role in climate change. Quite a controversy, indeed. Still, the majority has been wrong before. I don’t recommend blind faith—I recommend trusting the side with the best evidence. Apparently, 97 percent of climatology professionals agree.
Policymaking grounded in evidence, not faith, is the only responsible way to manage a country. The first step to tackling a global issue is for both sides to discuss the inferences they draw from objective statistics, not to dismiss science altogether or grossly enlarge the ongoing debate to misrepresent the fact that, among professionals, belief in man-made climate change enjoys virtual unanimity. Even Newt Gingrich, not exactly a friend of Democrats, has acknowledged anthropogenic climate change. He and Democrats still have virulent disagreements on how best to mitigate the environmental impact, but even that marks progress; deciding on the best policy is a more productive goal than deciding whether there should be a policy in the first place. If Representative Shimkus wants to become a radio personality or television host, let him. But the actions of Congress carry too much weight and affect too many souls for legislation to be passed or killed on an ungrounded conviction or an unwillingness to collaborate.