Yes, the climate has always been changing. But not like right now.
The set of Republican arguments against doing something about the climate crisis is in a constant state of flux. Individual lines go in and out of style. It is no longer kosher, for instance, to just deny outright that the climate is changing. With some notable exceptions, like Senator James Inhofe’s Snowball Spectacular, that’s mostly given way to arguments around feigned ignorance (it’s changing, but we don’t know how much is down to human activity), expense (it will cost too much to change our energy system), futility (what does it matter what we do if China keeps burning coal?), and absurdity (wind turbines cause cancer). But no matter the specific reasoning, the takeaway is always clear: we cannot, should not, and must not do anything to change the status quo.
One of the newer models of Action Denial is “the climate has always been changing.” This is a favorite among some people who think they are very smart, and others who don’t think much of their audience. We got a new illustration of the form from Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin in a new profile of the same in the New York Times Sunday:
- “You know, there’s a reason Greenland was called Greenland,” Mr. Johnson told WKOW-TV in Madison back then. “It was actually green at one point in time. And it’s been, you know, since, it’s a whole lot whiter now so we’ve experienced climate change throughout geologic time.”
- In the interview on Thursday, Mr. Johnson was still misinformed about the etymology of Greenland, which got its name from the explorer Erik the Red’s attempt to lure settlers to the ice-covered island.
- “I could be wrong there, but that’s always been my assumption that, at some point in time, those early explorers saw green,” Mr. Johnson said. “I have no idea.”
Johnson claimed Sunday that the Times distorted his comments, twisted them through “a liberal prism,” and omitted “most of what I actually say.” (He used this as an argument in support of a federal judge’s opinion last week railing against the 1964 Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark case reinforcing the free-speech rights of newspapers. The judge, Laurence Silberman, suggested in part that the Wall Street Journal news section is biased against Republicans, so we should roll back First Amendment protections.) But most of the evidence from Johnson’s career in public life would indicate he’s a sterling example of the Dunning-Krueger effect. The Times tells us it all began as you might expect: Johnson was “the chief executive of a plastics company started by his wife’s family” who positioned himself as a Businessman Not a Politician “concerned about federal spending and debt.” He spent $9 million of his own money on his campaign. Along the way since, he’s denied the scientific consensus on climate change, blaming “sun spots,” and said extra CO2 in the atmosphere “helps the trees grow.” The latter is similar to the position of the CO2 Coalition, whom I got acquainted with at a bonkers CPAC panel in 2017.
But back to the excuse at hand. It’s true that the climate has changed before now, but we are talking about differences in speed and context and cause. Yes, Greenland didn’t always have as much ice as it does now, but scientists have found plants grew in the soil there—indicating there was no ice cover—a little under a million years ago. We are currently talking about a timeframe of hundreds of years. The planet is now warming faster than at any point in history that we know of. We know that humans are causing this change by pumping gasses into the atmosphere that linger and trap heat. If we keep going like this, the planet will drift towards an environment that may be similar to other periods in its 4 billion-year history, but not periods that were particularly hospitable to the kind of life that now exists here. That’s the problem: Earth will go on. The question is whether it will allow human civilization as we know it to continue, too, or whether it will sweep us off like the rapacious ants we are.
But sure, let’s listen to the guy who said Social Security is run “like a Ponzi scheme,” and suggested Obamacare posed a threat to the last “shred of freedom” we enjoy as Americans, and who accused the League of Conservation Voters of waging “an environmental jihad” against him. Oh, and now he’s spending his time reading January 6 conspiracy theories into the congressional record. Come on now, Wisconsin.