Getting One's Polar Bearings on Climate Change

12/12/2009 12:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's an interesting phenomenon to live in a town where the level of public vitriol over nearly every political question runs incredibly high. Here in "high Sonoran" Arizona, we enjoy an amazingly diverse and oftentimes starkly polarized topography -- you can go from snow-capped peaks to wind-blown deserts in very short order -- and the cultural landscape seems to follow suit when issues such as immigration, health care, education, or warfare are raised in the public dialogue.

I imagine there are many places where opinions are similarly split over these sorts of matters. But it's also the case that in many locales there's likely a dominant viewpoint that essentially renders one side or the other as a mere "loyal opposition" that wields virtually no real sway in the local debate. One of the things I love most about living in a nascent "purple state" like Arizona is that the polarities are evident and dynamic. It makes for a vibrant discourse and provides a much-needed reality check no matter where one is situated on the political spectrum.

It's one of the reasons I enjoy writing a regular column in the local newspaper, where my blatant advocacy of social and environmental causes regularly draws a mix of brutally hostile and gratefully supportive comments. Being called a "hard-line Marxist" for advocating tame propositions like public transit, open space preservation, or human rights for migrants -- and actually having that critique taken seriously -- keeps one grounded in ways that are useful and distressing all at once.

Among the hotly contentious issues here that I've written about over the years is global warming -- somewhat ironic given that we live in a desert region where the water is drying up and the drought cycle is deepening. A recent film event sponsored by our local Tea Party contingent drew about 1,000 people to an auditorium to debunk the "socialistic" myth of climate change in particular and the environmental movement in general, which apparently have the combined effect of driving Americans into unemployment and poverty plus condemning African children to starvation and death. The film's host was quoted in the local media as saying that "Cockroaches make more CO2 than we do" -- although no cockroach was seemingly available for comment or rebuttal.

Now I'm not relating this tale because I think that you necessarily care about the goings-on here in tiny Prescott, Arizona. You probably have your own issues to confront and battles to fight wherever you reside, and reports about meetings of the Flat Earth Society or the Phrenology Club or the Global Warming as Socialist Conspiracy Group aren't particularly germane to you right now. But I do want to share something about the nature of these events that may be of use to you in the struggles that define the public dialogue wherever you happen to be.

First, the teabagger perspective is an intriguing mix of FOX News knee-jerkism and genuine principles about limited government. One can hear the scripted talking points in the "Green is the new Red" commentary as if they were some sort of secret society incantation. Plainly, if given a choice between corporate takeover or governmental takeover of our lives, the former would be preferable and, indeed, more American.

Second, and more to the point, the global warming debate isn't really about science or economics at all. It's actually a question of theology. One side argues that human activities are the largest causal factor driving climate change processes, whereas the other contends that it's all part of a natural cycle that transcends human influence. In many ways, I resonate with the naturalist argument, since humans are part of nature and if we do something it can thus be said to be "natural" on some level. I also appreciate the implicit reverence for natural cycles and the sense of humanity as less than omnipotent.

But that's not the upshot of the climate change deniers. It's really our generational version of the evolution debate that's going on here. Placing the changes we're undeniably seeing (and no one disputes that changes are occurring) in the realm of "natural cycles" is akin to putting it in God's hands and hence removing it from humanity's. This has the effect of reducing human activities and choices to becoming nearly meaningless, and thus bringing our free will almost down to nil in the process. Because the planet goes through cooling and warming cycles regardless of our presence here, there's no point in worrying about recycling, conserving, or consuming wisely. There's simply no reason to be green, and in fact being so is essentially heretical.

Melting ice caps, rising tides, devastating storms -- all seem to fit the eschatology of human insignificance in the face of almighty forces. The hubris of thinking that somehow we can influence our own destiny and that of the earth itself is seen as self-aggrandized hypocrisy (e.g., Al Gore) and misanthropic lunacy (e.g., Rachel Carson) on a biblical scale. The ancient texts are filled with similar accounts that ultimately led to God's wrath being visited upon the transgressors, and to the use of calamities to restore order.

The infotainment architects at FOX and other outlets know this history, and are happy to use political wedge issues to (almost literally) fan the flames of people eager to revel in revelation. This is the central cultural rift taking hold here, namely that between secular humanists and religious determinists. That it permeates issues across the dial is remarkable and yet predictable. It's an age-old divide, after all, and one that seems to be growing with each passing year. Interestingly absent from the polarized debate, however, are the myriad religious humanists in our midst who see the divine in humankind and the power it can wield for positive purposes, and the secular determinists who believe that there's a plan but argue that we're the ones responsible for creating and implementing it.

Finally, the news of our little local soiree made me think not only about polarized opinions, but polar bears too. I had this vision of a giant white creature alone on a melting fragment of ice, not particularly caring whether it was God's apocalypse or one made by humans that caused its plight. As it circumnavigates the globe on its dwindling ice floe, the bear suddenly finds itself face-to-face with a saguaro cactus, in a vast ocean that was once a desert (and before that once an ocean). It ponders the meaning of life and the miracle of its experience, enjoying the newfound quietude yet wondering whether such a peace, achieved at the expense of polarization, is really all that desirable in the end.