Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Polls, Politics and Climate

The Earth is doing just fine, thank you very much.  Those of the ilk who desire to save the Earth (arguably from the ravages of humankind) are missing the point, actually.  Humans have been inhabiting the planet for but a hiccup of time in the grand scheme of things, and – despite any delusions to the contrary – will be gone in just as quick of a hiccup, no matter what our attempts to hang on might be.  That’s simply the fate of species on this planet.  Here today.  Gone tomorrow.  Look it up in the fossil record if you don’t want to take my word for it.
Don’t get me wrong.  I’m an ecologist and an environmentalist and a tree-hugger extraordinaire.  But I think what we’re really talking about when we express a desire to “save the Earth” is to survive . . . as a species, as a quiltwork of cultures (my culture especially) and as individuals.  The Earth, frankly, and life on it doesn’t really need us as benefactors or protectors.  What few scars we scratch on its surface will heal quickly.  The roles of those species that vanish will rapidly be filled by others.  Days will still be roughly 24 hours long and years still encompass one trip around the sun.
So, it was with no little amount of humor that I read this week an article in the New York Times about “dueling polsters” who are arguing one to the other in the media that their particular poll is the correct barometer to use when measuring public opinion with respect to climate change.  I find this humorous for a lot of reasons.  First, opinions of U.S. adults are extremely volatile, especially when viewed through the lenses of opinion poll questions designed to narrowly focus on one minute aspect of one select issue (such as placing a cap on carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere in hypothetical climate change legislation).  Second, I would venture that most of the people being asked have no idea what carbon dioxide is and what its potential effects might be in the Earth’s atmosphere on climate change, or what the regulatory and economic impacts of a carbon dioxide cap and trade system might entail, or, even, what the “atmosphere” is.  So are the poll results really an indication of anything given this knowledge gap?  Third, of the 6.8 billion or so people on the Earth, the universe of people who really care about these poll results is really small and insignificant.  That self-important minority includes the pollsters, themselves, who have a job to justify, politicians and their minions, who want to get their daily indication of which wind direction to follow, and policy and media wonks (like me), who might use the poll results to support an opinion that they already have and won’t change anyway.
Like this opinion of mine: “So what?”  No one cares about the polls.  They are meaningless in a very real sense.  We still keep spewing out carbon dioxide and the Earth still keeps warming up very very nicely.  Maybe someday humanity (the wealthy minority who over-consume and over-emit, that is) will be shocked into the realization that their own livelihoods and very lives of their children are at stake, and stop the mass suicide. But apart from all of that, the Earth will be just fine, folks.  We can stop worrying about that and be honest about what and whom we really are trying to save: ourselves.

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