Andy Schmookler: Reasons for denying climate change

Everybody has reasons not to want to believe what scientists are saying about climate change.

For starters, who wants to believe that we humans are facing our greatest challenge ever? Life is hard enough, just meeting the challenges of taking care of our families.

And most of us resist change. It’s so much easier to just keep on doing what we’re doing.

And who wants to accept the troubling news that our children and grandchildren will be hurt unless we act responsibly in the face of the unwelcome truth.

All of these are motives – applying to nearly everyone – for just pretending that what’s happening on our planet isn’t happening, and that we don’t need to do anything about it.

Some have an additional understandable motive to deny the science. These are people whose ideology says that everything can be taken care of by the market: good comes when everyone separately pursues his own interests, and no decisions have to be made collectively. That clearly won’t work with a problem like climate change, which requires collective action not just by the nation but by the whole world. So accepting the reality of climate change would require people who want to keep their libertarian ideology really simple to see things in a more complex way.

All those reasons command my sympathy.

But there is another group with a different – and less easily forgiven — reason for denying what the climate scientists are telling us: individuals and organizations that get very rich off our remaining addiction to fossil fuels that the human future requires us to wean ourselves from. These people are less forgivable because they are willing to sacrifice our children and grandchildren for their own short-term profits.

The energy industry’s efforts to prevent the American people from understanding what’s happening in the Earth’s climate system has long been documented. In 1998, the book “The Heat Is On” by Gelbspan, exposed this campaign of deception. More recently (2011), “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway, expanded on this picture of the industry’s attempt to keep the public from seeing the urgent challenge we face.

Since people have reasons for not wanting to face this reality, enough people have been persuaded by the energy industry’s efforts to cripple American efforts to meet this challenge.

All this has been brought to mind – here in Virginia – by the recent publication of two letters in the Richmond Times Dispatch by David Shuford, a vice president and deputy general counsel at Dominion Resources. Dominion, of course, is Virginia’s largest energy company. And Mr. Shuford’s letters are a rehash of all the usual falsehoods heard from fossil-fuel-funded climate-deniers.

Perhaps Mr. Shuford believes what he is saying – e.g. when he denies how almost unanimous climate scientists are 1) on the reality of climate change, 2) on the role of our fossil fuel consumption in generating it, and 3) on the serious costs that Americans and people around the world will likely pay if we don’t move quickly toward a clean energy future.

My bet is that Mr. Shuford knows better than what he’s saying because – in his former role as Dominion’s vice president of policy in charge of “Business Evaluation, Alternative Energy Solutions” – it would have been his business to know.

Others who need to know do indeed seem to know. The insurance companies – having to take into account the increasing number of extreme weather events, and the rising seas – know well, and are acting accordingly. The Pentagon – having to plan for our national security challenges of the future, and with naval bases threatened by the rising oceans – knows and plans accordingly.

A decade ago, I was told by someone on the inside that the oil industry, in its discussions with the Bush administration, showed full recognition of the truth about climate change but was also determined to keep the public in the dark – as indeed it seems Exxon has done for nearly 40 years since, in intra-company communications, its own scientists first gave warning about the dangers.

Does Dominion agree with its vice president? With Dominion being a public-regulated utility — and the largest donor to Virginia’s politicians — Virginians have a right to know. However, challenged to repudiate Mr. Shuford’s false picture, Dominion has remained silent.

Regardless of whether Mr. Shuford is being dishonest or is simply deluded, either way the question arises: what does it say about the corporate culture at Dominion that such a man — with such views on the most important issue bearing upon the industry for which he works – could rise to the highest levels of the company?

Andy Schmookler,  who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012, is the author most recently of “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – and How We Can Defeat It.”



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