Last semester, I was given an assignment to email a state representative with an environmental concern. Below is my letter to Representative Steven King of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District on the subject of Climate Change:
Dear Representative King,
I am writing to you to express my concerns regarding previous comments you had made on the subject of climate change. Environmental policy is complex and climate science is more complicated still, but I strongly contend that continued inaction will only lead to disaster. Our global mishandling of the environment will not only have horrific consequences for the biodiversity of the planet, but will also affect the quality of life for future generations of Americans and the rest of the global population.
In particular, I want to address one such comment you had made which was the following:
“If [the temperature of the earth] went up, there’d be more evaporation of the 70 percent of the earth that’s covered by water,” King said. “And so I know by Newton’s first law of physics, if it evaporates up, what goes up must come down, has got to come down in the form of rain. So if the earth is warm, it’ll rain more and more places.”
Unfortunately, I think the impact of climate change on rainfall patterns is more complex than a ubiquitous increase in rainfall over the globe. Some areas may indeed experience increased precipitation, but it has also been projected that dryer regions will receive less annual rainfall. Increased precipitation in states such as Iowa may not be desirable if this is accompanied by extreme rainfall events that reduce annual crop yields. Furthermore, alterations in global rainfall patterns have the potential to threaten the food security of other nations located in regions that are projected to become drier.
While these projections are indeed concerning, it is important to recognize we are already seeing negative consequences from anthropogenic climate change. Although the rate of warming has slowed down, the planet has continued to warm and the past decade was the hottest on record. Oceans are becoming acidified from higher CO2 concentrations, and sea levels are rising. More troubling yet is the pressure that climate change has exerted on our planet’s ecosystems and on its wildlife.
As troubling as this is, there may be hope if congress can agree with the overwhelming majority of climate scientists on this issue. It is clear that we need more republican leadership advocating for action on climate change if we are to mitigate future ecological and human disaster. Therefore, I must ask, what will you do in congress to protect our environmental future?
Several months passed, but eventually I received this in my inbox:
Dear Mr. Lode,
Thank you for contacting me with your thoughts regarding global warming. I always appreciate hearing from my constituents.
As you may know, liberals like former Vice President Al Gore are always claiming that the “debate is over” when it comes to global warming. However, there is still considerable debate within the scientific community over how much (if any) the Earth’s temperature has risen. There is also considerable debate over how much any change in the Earth’s climate is anthropogenic (i.e. is caused by humans) or is caused by other factors, such as changes on the sun or simply the Earth’s natural climate cycle. Furthermore, predictions made by many climate scientists have proven over the years to be wildly inaccurate, so it is clear that we still have very little grasp on what the future holds for our climate. Finally, there is significant dispute over what global warming, were it to occur, would have on our environment and how much it would affect severe weather instances like hurricanes, floods, and droughts, and other climate-related issues.
It is worth noting that in the 1970’s, when global temperatures were dropping, there was significant scientific concern about “global cooling.” Radical action was encouraged, such as melting the Arctic ice caps and diverting arctic rivers. With the science behind global warming and climate change largely unsettled, it hardly seems wise or prudent to enact legislation, like “Cap and Tax,” which would impact our entire economy and impose crushing taxes on all Americans in an attempt to combat something that very well may be entirely outside of our control. As Congress considers various measures pertaining to climate change, I will keep your thoughts in mind.
Thank you once again for contacting me. Please do not hesitate to do so again in the future.
Member of Congress
I find an anti-environmental stance to be inherently toxic to three of the things rural Iowans tend to value quite highly: Christianity, capitalism, and agriculture.
So Steve King denies climate change. In other news, the sky is blue, and the Earth goes around the sun. King is far from the only republican denying the necessity for action on climate change. Senator-elect Joni Ernst stated that she is unclear on whether or not climate change is man-made. Perhaps more concerning, she also wants to completely abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. A major commonality between these two republicans is that they represent the rural Iowan vote. King is the rural voice of western Iowa by virtue of being the representative of Iowa’s fourth congressional district, and Ernst annihilated
Bruce Braley in the competition for the rural vote in the Senate race. While environmental policy is just one stance among many in the republican platform, I find it curious that such an anti-environmental stance has taken root among rural voters. In particular, I find such a stance to be inherently toxic to three of the things rural Iowans tend to value quite highly: Christianity, capitalism, and agriculture.
Beginning with Christianity, it is quite clear that the God of the bible asks mankind to take care of the Earth:
Jeremiah 2:7 – I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable. (NIV)
Lev. 25:23-24. The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land
Revelation 11:18 – The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great — and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (NIV)
Religious opposition to climate action tends to stem from the belief that the destiny of humanity is ultimately under God’s control, and thus by taking action to reduce our impact on climate, we are tacitly admitting that humans are the arbiters of our future-not God. I find the position that climate science and climate action are anti-biblical to be quite dubious for several reasons. First, no climate scientist that I know of is suggesting that our impact on climate will make the earth completely uninhabitable for humans, at least not for quite some time anyway. What is clear, however, is that the vast majority of climate and ecological scientists agree that our biosphere is becoming increasingly less conducive to human life. Secondly, if we concede that humanity isn’t likely to meet its end soon from climate change, we can re-examine the bible verses listed above. Both refer to God’s anger towards those who have defiled and destroyed the Earth. It thereby is consistent with scripture that humans are capable of harming the planet while still being ultimately under the direction of God. Finally, if dire predictions of climate scientists are true, which include the displacement of millions people due to rising sea-levels, heavy financial loss and loss of life due to extreme weather events, and the increased malnourishment of people due to reduced agricultural yields, then we are slowly becoming the indirect cause of the impoverishment, starvation, and death of large numbers of people in the coming century. I think that both liberal and conservative Christians can agree that such action is in direct opposition to the teachings of the bible.
The second typical objection against climate action from rural conservatives follows the business angle. In other words, tighter regulations hurt business by raising cost of operation, and therefore regulation is bad for the economy. Is it really though? Let me counter with the basic environmental argument posited by Dr. Fritz Schumacher in his essay “The Problem of Production”. The argument is as follows:
Let’s say that there exists a business that converts a natural resource into a product. One day you discover that your company has been extracting too much of said natural resource at a rate that depletes its natural replenishment. Which of these options is the better business model?
Option 1: Maximize initial profits by continuing to harvest the resource at the current rate?
Option 2: Extract the resource at a more balanced rate, but at an initial cost to revenue.
Now, I know it’s tempting to jump to Option 2 right away, but not all would agree. Some would argue that the uncertainty of the economy demands that one maximize his or her profits as much as possible and that one should worry about adjusting the business model only when it becomes absolutely critical. I would disagree with this argument, but I have to concede that as someone with little training in economics, I’m unqualified to give such a rebuttal. What I can say, however, is that option 2 is clearly represents a better long term business model for the private sector. That is, if the private sector collectively extracts resources at rate with long term profits in mind, the economy is healthier. Now let me adjust Options 1 and 2 slightly to fit the climate crisis. The private sector as a whole is extracting and using natural resources in a way that depletes the stability of the climate beyond its ability to repair itself. Which of these options represents the better long term business model for the private sector?
Option 1: Maximize initial profits by continuing to extract and use resources in a way that slowly depletes the stability of the climate.
Option 2: Use Earth’s natural resources in a manner that doesn’t deplete the stability of the climate at an initial cost to revenue.
This may seem like an invalid comparison as the stability of the climate may not seem directly related to the economy, but this is clearly false thinking when one considers the potential costs associated with climate change. A recent report from leading climate scientists and economists highlighted several highly probable negative economic impacts related to climate change. Chief among them are rising costs associated with threats to coastal infrastructure, increased cooling costs, reduced labor productivity from increases in the frequency of days of extreme heat, and unfortunately for rural Iowans, decreased crop yields.
Being green doesn’t necessarily mean being anti-economic.
Contrary to King’s frequent claim, changes in climate do not always bode well for agricultural production. Before I begin, a balanced argument demands that I mention some of the potential benefits to crop production associated with climate change before I get into its adverse effects. Because plants sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, higher concentrations of CO2 have the potential to increase yields of certain crops such as corn and soybeans. Furthermore, the number of frost free days in Iowa has risen by about 8-9 days which has in turn, provided a longer growing season. These are a few of the possible benefits to crop yields, but the aforementioned advantages are likely to be offset by a number of other factors. Higher CO2 concentrations may boost yield, but crops grown in artificially higher CO2 conditions have been shown to have less nitrogen and protein content, and are therefore less nutritious. Increases in the severity and frequency of droughts, downpours of increasing intensity, and other extreme weather is likely to offset, and possibly reverse, gains in crop yields from changing climate. All of this, of course, says nothing of the potentially devastating impacts of climate change on agriculture in other countries.
The Iowa flood of 2008 caused nearly $3 billion in crop damages.
Ernst and King have the rural Iowan vote for now, but it is clear that their environmental platforms do not represent the core values of most Iowans. Given their propensity to undermine and ignore the science of climate change, I assert that they do not represent another core value of Iowa: education. Disagreements on the action needed to mitigate climate disaster are understandable, but denial and inaction ultimately hurts everyone, especially Iowans.