Dear Tom,

You replied to me again! Someone in your office looked over one of my letters, categorized it according to topic, made a note of what I seemed to be for or against, and then emailed a form letter with your talking points on that issue. I wouldn’t exactly say that I feel “listened to” but I once more feel like your office is getting caught up in its bureaucratic functionality.

In your letter, you tell me that you are an “avid sportsman” who appreciates the “importance of nature.” I had written to thank you for your support of a Republican climate-change resolution and my friend Brian had written to thank you for joining the bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus. I’m glad to hear that you affirm the “importance of nature.” And I’m even happier that you have made your public support for working on climate change visible to your constituents and to your colleagues in congress.

You also wrote in your letter that the causes of climate change “are debatable.” If, when you say “debatable,” you mean that the causes of climate change are complex and multi-faceted, I agree.

I’ve been thinking about analogies with other problems whose causes are “debatable” in the sense that there are many contributing factors and it’s challenging to figure out what actions would be best. The first analogy that came to mind was lung cancer among smokers and those near them. Smoking as a cause of cancer was “debated” for a long time. Even though the evidence was clear and consistent, changing our culture to stigmatize and constrain smoking as a threat to public health took decades. And the shift was a painful one because there was so much at stake for a big economic player—the tobacco industry—who lost a lot of market power.

But the public-health effects of smoking are not the best analogy with climate change. The links between tobacco smoke and lung cancer were clearer to see and more personal than the links between burning carbon and climate change. Many people saw relatives die slow painful deaths from lung cancer and could immediately make the connection to the cigarettes these relatives smoked. When I say that my husband’s grandfather died a little young people look surprised and sad. And then I tell them that he was a life-long smoker and died of lung cancer. They nod their heads knowingly. We get it.

A better analogy perhaps is the effects of exercise and diet on health and longevity. We’ve been told that keeping our weight down and getting plenty of exercise will extend our lives. There isn’t really any debate about this. I don’t doubt that if I lost 20 pounds and got 30 minutes of really brisk exercise every day, I would be healthier and would be likelier to live into my eighties or nineties.

But it’s tricky, isn’t it? I could die in a car accident tomorrow. Or, like my mom (who did eat really well and exercise every day), I could die suddenly of colon cancer in my seventies. And what makes a healthy diet, anyway? For years, nutritionists told people to cut back on fatty foods—no butter, cream, juicy pork chops. Now “they” say, “whoops—it’s actually the sugar and the carbs that are the problem. The butter and the pork chop are okay—skip the bread and the baked potato, though.

And what about exercise? How much do I need? Can I get my heart rate up with an intensive work-out a couple of times per week or is it better if I get up out of my office chair and take a brisk walk every day? As you say, “it’s debatable.”

So even though there is public consensus that a healthy diet and exercise lead to longevity, we don’t exactly know what’s going to work. And it’s even trickier to figure out what painful choices I should make to increase my lifespan. How often can I stop at Tim Horton’s? I used to jog several times a week but now my knees hurt and my physical therapist tells me I need to find something else. What will that be?

In terms of climate change, the line charting the rise of carbon in the atmosphere and the line showing global temperature increase (over the past 150 years) are pretty much in sync. This correlation doesn’t prove causation, of course. But I’ve read the work of the climate scientists looking at this data and trying to explain it in lots of different ways before concluding that the connection between humans burning carbon-based fuels, carbon in the atmosphere, and the increase in global temperature is the best explanation for what’s going on. Could they be wrong? It’s possible. Could we be wrong that losing weight and exercising more increase longevity? It’s possible. But in both cases, there’s pretty good evidence for the connection.

But this analogy also works for the solutions. It’s painful and difficult to figure out how to lose weight and exercise more. And it’s painful and difficult to figure out how to reduce the rate at which we’re burning carbon.

In both cases, too, the damage may be done and it’s not clear how much benefit we can gain from addressing the problem now. At what point is it too late for me to make consequential changes in my diet and exercise routine? Will I really gain from doing this? And there’s the immediate pleasure of the chocolate cake right now or the evening spent on the couch watching Netflix. On the climate side, there’s the present good of jobs in extractive and other industries and the enjoyment of the luxuries of modern industrial society. I don’t feel like skipping the cake and going for a walk in the dark on a winter’s evening instead of watching television. It’s painful to take actions that might shut down factories or mines to keep the ocean from rising a few more inches.

But I would argue, in both cases, it’s the right thing to do. Incipient rises in ocean levels are already causing problems in Florida; coastal cities are already having to change their infrastructure to prepare for higher water. The industries of agriculture and forestry are seeing costly shifts. Yes—we’re adapting. But since this is an increasing problem, we don’t know how far it will go.

Yes—this issue is complex and in that sense “debatable.” I don’t think badgering you with the scientific consensus or describing apocalyptic scenarios is helpful. My sense is that people generally shut down and stop listening when the conversation goes in that direction.

But I think we need to have the debate about what we are going to do next. And I think we can probably agree that the carbon equivalent of eating chocolate cake and spending every evening watching Netflix is not going to get us anywhere helpful.

You’ve taken two important steps on this issue, Tom. You’ve joined with fellow Republicans in saying that you care about this issue. And you’ve joined with a bi-partisan group that says that it’s looking for solutions.

Here’s your next step: consider whether you support the “carbon fee and dividend” idea that’s been floating around. You can read about it here. If you don’t support it, identify a better idea and tell us why it’s better.

I’m eager to see you show yourself a leader on this issue.

Now I need to get off my desk chair and get some exercise!

Your devoted constituent,

Susan

One thought on “It’s debatable

  1. I like the analogy between healthful behavior and climate change. In both cases, short term concerns may have long term consequences. However, there is a big difference–unhealthy lifestyle primarily affects oneself, while lack of concern for climate change, particularly among political decision makers, affects all.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s