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Simplifying the Climate Debate

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApril 21, 2011 7:53 PM


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Can we all agree on this statement from Penn State geologist Richard Alley?

I think it's important to say that the interaction between radiation and gases in the air is not red or blue. It's not Republican or Democrat, or libertarian or anything else. It's physics.

That's from an interview that Alley does with the Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, related to his involvement with a recent PBS documentary called, Earth: The Operators' Manuel. Here's a snippet from the Yale Forum exchange that I want to highlight.


It's interesting, Dr. Alley, that you felt compelled, very early in both the TV documentary and in the book, to point out your party registration as a Republican and your somewhat "right of center" political philosophy, and to mention that you regularly attend a mainstream church. What is the background on your feeling a need to make those points? ALLEY: We discussed this a whole lot. I don't like to wave flags, and I don't usually wear that on my sleeve. But this issue has become so strongly political. In my experience, if I open my mouth and say there is interaction between radiation in the atmosphere and certain gases at these wave lengths, and it has these strengths, there are a reasonable number of people who look at me and say "You're one of those darned liberals, and you're trying to take away my pickup truck." ***** Is Alley conflating two separate issues in that last part about the pickup truck owner? Because as I understand it, there are three groups of people: 1) Those who simply don't believe the physics; 2) Those who believe the physics but are not sold on the dire projections; and 3) Those who believe the physics and are sufficiently concerned about the worst case scenarios to support policies that would restrict greenhouse gases. Now I know that there is a splintering in that last group of people who support different policies and political approaches, but have I got the three main categories right? I ask because wouldn't the larger public dialogue be better defined if we could establish that the majority of opposition to climate action stemmed from either 1) rejection of the physics, or 2) rejection of the projected dire impacts? If it's the latter, as I suspect, then perhaps we can stop arguing so much over the science (and uncertainties) and shift the debate to a "risk management framework," as one speaker said at this 2007 conference on climate change and national security. It may not make the politics of climate change any less toxic, but at least the terms of the debate would be better defined.

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