Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Richard Schwartz: Why is there so much skepticism about climate change?

In the days since Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, there has been a great deal of discussion of Medicare and their economic policies on the news, but so far, very little has been said about the fact that Ryan is a climate-change denier.  Romney has also said he is "not sure" what causes climate change if it exists  -- and that in the face of so much mounting scientific evidence.  So I thought I would share this excerpt from my new book, Who Stole My Religion?:

Why is there so much skepticism about climate change?

          With all of this powerful scientific evidence confirming anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, why there is so much public skepticism?  In 2009, only 57 percent of Americans accepted that climate change was a problem and only 36 percent thought human activities were a factor.  Is this merely denial, or are there more sinister reasons?

         According to James Hoggan, author of Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade To Deny Global Warming, the oil, coal, and other industries that are profiting from the status quo are willing to go to great lengths to mislead people so that they can continue to receive huge profits.  Hoggan, who was initially a skeptic about climate change himself, writes that it is a “story of betrayal, a story of selfishness, greed, and irresponsibility on an epic scale…  a story of deceit, of poisoning public judgment…”

         Another clue comes from the results of a study called, “Balance as Bias,” which considered a random sample of 636 articles about climate change in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal.  More than 50 percent of the articles gave roughly equal weight to both the scientific view and the scientifically discredited view (that humans do not play a major role in climate change). This would be similar to having a debate on the shape of our planet, and giving equal time to the Flat Earth Society.

         In addition, some conservative politicians and commentators downplay the significance of climate change.  U. S. Senator James Inhofe, for example, calls it the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”  No wonder many folks are so confused. On one side you have vociferously opinionated media pundits, bloggers, and politicians like Senator Inhofe (who received close to a million dollars from the oil and coal industries between 2000 and 2008). On the other side are the real experts, typically more cautious in their assertions.  

         Meanwhile, the media, leaning over backward to be perceived as balanced and reasonable, often gives equal time to both “sides” of the issue — even though the vast majority of climate scientists, virtually all peer-reviewed articles in respected scientific journals, and statements from scientific academies worldwide agree that the scientific probability is extremely high that climate change poses an existential threat to life as we know it — and that we are the cause and the potential solution. 

Waiting for 100% agreement means doing nothing

         Many people do not understand that scientists rarely, if ever, all agree 100% on anything.  As pointed out with the “Flat Earth Society” example above, there will always be a few fringe dissenters, even on commonly accepted facts.  Nor do people always understand that in science, a “theory” is not merely somebody’s made-up opinion.  Rather, it is a hypothesis that is supported by documentable evidence. The confusion over what scientific “probability” and “uncertainty” actually mean was addressed in a letter signed by 255 leading scientists that appeared in the May 2010 issue of the respected journal Science:

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular.  All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts.  There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything.  When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. [Emphasis in original] For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Climate expert Lord Nicholas Stern of Brentford, former chief economist at the World Bank and former advisor to the British Prime Minister on economic matters, concluded in a major study of the potential economic effects of climate change that spending one percent of gross national product now to reduce climate change could prevent the necessity of spending five to 20 percent of gross national product later on to address the many harmful effects of climate change.

If we follow the strenuous recommendations of climate scientists, we have the potential for a far better, environmentally sustainable world. However, if we follow the advice of the skeptics and do not try to address climate change soon, we will likely end up with a climatic cataclysm.

Is climate change merely “liberal politics?”

         Another reason there is so much skepticism about climate change, despite the strong scientific consensus surrounding it, is the bias of Fox News.  An internal e-mail written in December 2009 and published by liberal-media-watchdog group Media Matters for America, on December 16, 2010, revealed that Bill Sammon, Fox News’s Washington bureau chief, told Fox journalists to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.  It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.”

         While it is true that there have been a few examples of scientific error and misbehavior among climate scientists, these have been unfairly seized upon and exaggerated by climate change deniers. Follow-up investigations have demonstrated that the mistakes were honest ones, and there were no efforts by the scientific community to mislead the public.

         The so-called “Climategate” scandal has been shown to be a bogus accusation.  Numerous investigations of the scientists in question concluded they were guilty of nothing more than failing to fully share their data with their critics and of making rude e-mail comments about them.  Investigations were carried out by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Inspector General, by the British House of Commons' Science and Technology Committee, and by an independent inquiry panel convened by the British University of East Anglia, among others.  An Associated Press review of the e-mails in question found no evidence that the scientists in question faked anything.

         Many people dismiss climate change as just “liberal politics.”  They give more weight to the views of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other reactionary commentators than to the scientific consensus.   These climate deniers should be made aware of the previously mentioned, little-known group, “Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP).”  There is an abundance of material about climate change and other environmental threats at their website (http://www.REP.org), including responses to many of the questions that climate deniers (and sincere skeptics) raise.

While REP is very committed to the election of Republicans, they were only able to endorse 19 out of over 500 Republican candidates (less than 4 percent!) for Congress and governorships during the 2010 midterm U.S. Elections, because so few of these candidates have positive records on the environment.* 

         Both REP and a sister group called ConservAmerica (http://www.ConserveAmerica.org)** share the slogan “Conservation IS Conservative.”  These groups deserve much greater recognition and their voices heard.  Climate change is not a partisan, political issue, but arguably the greatest moral, environmental, economic, and social justice issue of our time.

Richard. H. Schwartz

(excerpted from Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and applying Jewish values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet,  pp. 180-183)

* It is indeed ironic that ConserveAmerica won't be able to  endorse their own GOP's presidential ticket, the Romney-Ryan record on the environment is so abysmal. See http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/08/11/677051/meet-paul-ryan-climate-denier-conspiracy-theorist-koch-acolyte/

** since publication of Who Stole My Religion, REP.org and ConserveAmerica have merged as ConserveAmerica.  Either web address takes you to the same website. 

See also Rabbi Gershom's article Vote Romney-Ryan and kill the planet for an excellent analysis of  Ryan as a conspiracy theorist and Romney as an energy Luddite.

And if you happen to be a Republican and still believe climate change is a hoax, please read this excellent article by Republican meteorologist Paul Douglas (founder of the WeatherNation Channel, among other things):

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Rosh Hashanah L'Behamot -- the New Year for Animals

Toward a modern Jewish New Year for Animals
By Rabbi Yonassan Gershom

Rosh Hashanah, the day that we traditionally celebrate as the Jewish New Year, comes on the first and second days of the month of Tishri on the Hebrew calendar.  But in reality, there are actually four "new years" in Judaism, each serving a different purpose  (based on Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1a, but arranged in a different order here):
  1. The first of Tishri, for the counting of calendar years, Jubilee years, etc.
  2. The first of Nissan, for dating the reign of kings and for various legal documents
  3. The fifteenth of Shevat, for tithing fruits of trees
  4. The first of Elul, for tithing cattle
Only the first of Tishri is a "New Year's Day" in the sense that we now think of it.  The others are more like fiscal years, similar, for example, to how income taxes are due on the 15th of April (in the USA) and not the first of the secular year.

The first of Elul "for tithing cattle" was the cut-off point for determining in which year an animal should be included in the count.  Animals born before that date were tithed in the old year; animals born after that date were tithed in the new year.  Nowadays very few Jews are raising flocks of animals and, since there has not been a Jerusalem Temple since the year 70 C.E. (when the Romans destroyed it), nobody is tithing animals for Temple sacrifices anymore.   Nevertheless, this date remains on the Jewish calendar, although, admittedly, it is not very well known today.
A mother hen on her nest in my yard.
(The white spot by her head is a chick.)
Very few chicks are hatched this
natural way anymore
Recently, there have been suggestions among Jewish animal welfare activists to make the first of Elul, the "Rosh Hashanah for Animals," into a day for focusing on the many teachings in Judaism about the proper treatment of animals.  This would not be the first time that a Jewish holiday got re-defined after the Temple was destroyed.  Shavuot, the "Feast of Weeks," was originally celebrated with processions of people bringing their first-fruits to the Temple.  Today it focuses on receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, which also took place on the same date.  Tu B'Shevat, the "New Year for Trees" (#3 in the list above) is now a form of Jewish Earth Day, when people not only plant trees, but also focus on current environmental issues.

In the same way, the New Year for Animals would shift the focus from tithing sacrifices toward learning about how animals are treated on factory farms, comparing that with Jewish teachings about the proper treatment of animals, and making choices about where we get our milk, eggs, and meat -- or maybe even considering vegetarianism as a better alternative.  Given that most Jews today are urban people who rarely, if ever, have contact with farmers or farm animals, I think that developing a modern version of this day would be a great educational opportunity.

Typical ram's horn Shofar
It would also fit with the overall theme of the month of Elul.  Traditionally, we blow the shofar (ram's horn) once each morning during Elul (except on the Sabbath.)  This is to remind us that the High Holy Day season is coming, and that we should "wake up" and take account of our lives in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Adding the observance of Rosh Hashanah for Animals on the first of Elul would mean that on the very first day of the month leading into the High Holy Day season, we would examine how we are treating God's creatures.  Perhaps we might start with the words of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism:

"A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability... A person should consider himself and all creatures as comrades in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given."  (Tzava'as Ha Rivash 12)

(This article was reposted here with permission from Rabbi Gershom's website, Notes from a Jewish Thoreau, where you can find more essays exploring the relatonship between Judaism and nature. 

See also Richard Schwartz's article, "An Audacious Initiative to Restore the Ancient New Year for Animals" posted on August 8, 2012 on Tikkun Daily.)