The retina of any sighted person can detect a flicker of flame or the glow of a TV screen. But when light rises above 780 nanometers or falls below 380 nm along the electromagnetic spectrum, it becomes imperceptible to the naked eye -- and potentially dangerous with enough intensity. Unfiltered infrared light creeping in through museum windows can degrade priceless works of art while extreme ultraviolet light and X-rays can harm human organs.
Only those who understand the potency of radiation can protect themselves from exposure to it. Still fewer have the power to bend it to their will.
As a phenomenon, radiation shares some things in common with climate change denial, an organized yet covert attempt to downplay the scientific consensus on climate change. This invisible force, both diffuse and laser-like in its effects, is a well-oiled machine spreading confusion among legislators and the American public.
Climate denial was on full display during the recent Senate subcommittee hearing Climate Change: The Need to Act Now, which addressed the EPA's proposed rule to cut carbon emissions from power plants. Denigrating the science of climate change as well as the policies for mitigating it, vocal climate denier Senator James Inhofe argued that the EPA proposal is part of "the first round of regulations to force America to live out his [Obama's] green dream." (View Jon Stewart's take on the same hearing.)
Interestingly, the Republican's comments were countered by testimony from four EPA administrators who served during Republican administrations, who affirmed the 97 percent scientific consensus on climate change and the need for urgent action. Days later, the Supreme Court again validated the EPA's plans to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as pollutants via the Clean Air Act.
However, the inability of the administration and Congress to find common ground on the issue of global warming suggests that climate denial remains a significant hurdle to implementing a comprehensive plan to orient our country toward a sustainable future.
According to research from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, more than half of Americans now believe global warming is happening. However, the "disinterested" minority still maintains disproportionate control.
Fueled by groups such as the Heartland Institute and various "ultra free market" foundations, the climate denial campaign is laser-focused on influencing legislators to put the interests of the fossil fuel industry above environmental and public health interests. Such influence that is made possible through campaign donations.
"Contributing money is really about getting access," explained Russ Choma, a money and politics reporter for the Center for Responsive Politics. "It's subtle, yet nefarious."
As with invisible radiation, the money that flows into the coffers of political candidates is hiding in plain sight for those with the tools to track it. I learned about the Center's non-partisan data clearinghouse OpenSecrets.org while in D.C. during a science writing residency at Johns Hopkins.
Our introduction to policy making also included an investigation into the Keystone pipeline, an issue that has become symbolic of the divide between the nation's economic and environmental interests. Following one debate, I asked,
"What bi-partisan energy proposals would you consider supporting?" The respondents stuck to their speaking points, dodging my question. As with the Senate subcommittee hearing, I came away knowing more facts, yet still in the dark about the truth.
Given the vast scientific evidence and the high economic toll of climate change, climate denial should be a fading memory. Instead, it remains a recurring nightmare fueled not only by money, but also by politics as usual.
Fortunately, during my time in D.C., I also learned that there is more progress than political posturing would suggest. When you get past the rhetoric, you discover that groups like Citizens Climate Lobby are convening legislators from both sides to hammer out policy recommendations such as carbon fee and dividend, a variant of the growing bi-partisan movement for a carbon tax.
Fortunately, Washington isn't inhabited solely by bureaucrats and deniers. In our nation's capital also reside dedicated journalists, fact finders and watchdog organizations to arm advocates with information to further pro-climate campaigns. However, unless we act on the information they provide, those with the most money will remain the most powerful.
Just as sunglasses safeguard our eyes from UV rays, common-sense regulation protects the public against the unmitigated consequences, i.e. externalities, of over-reliance of fossil fuels. Such protections, which also spur clean-tech innovation, will not happen as long as Americans remain in the dark about climate science and policy making. If knowledge is power, then understanding sources of climate denial is a starting point for citizens that want agency in a process dominated by moneyed interests.
Touching back down at D/FW, I felt the usual weight of coming home to a city I love but one that still lags in terms of a sustainable culture. But then I met up with Tony Robinson, author of High Performance Buildings. His words reassured me:
Working in sustainability, it's hard to visit other cities and see how much bigger the group is to network with, how many more people there are who 'get it.' When you come back it feels like a desert. But the good thing about coming back here is realizing how wide open it is. Even though the market is much smaller, there's more room to grow and create.
Here in Dallas, as much as red and blue still clash, we are working together to build the green market. Sustainability leaders here aren't beaten down by bureaucracy or politics. We are optimistic frontiersmen.
Denial is a waste of American ingenuity, talent and energy. If we want to remain competitive in the global economy, we should redirect our energies into making America great through conservation, innovation and education. I only hope that the energy generated in the private sector in cities across America is enough to offset the force of the denial campaign infecting our public sector.