05/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Will to Disbelieve

George Will is far from the only Boomer pundit who spends his time shadowboxing Dirty Hippies on the Washington Post editorial page, but his Thursday column is a doozy even by that genre's dubious standards. Seems the Communist Greens, with their "hostility to markets" and contempt for individual freedom, have teamed up with Activist Judges yet again. They're after America's vital fluids!

Amidst the error and oleaginous bad faith, however, lies one valuable nugget of insight. Let's dig it out.

What's at issue is whether polar bears should be listed under the Endangered Species Act (as they were last week ... kind of) because of the danger of climate change.

Now, Will doesn't believe in climate change, though it's clear he hasn't updated his cue cards in a while. One sure indication of lazy conservative hackery on climate is the invocation of a "global cooling scare" in the 1970s. Will deploys this tired trope not once, not twice, but three times in a 700 word column. Not a good sign.

(Side note: the "global cooling scare" talking point is refuted here. For similar refutations of dozens of other common skeptical arguments, see Grist's How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic series.)

But about the polar bears. Will think it's a "fatal conceit" that humans can know, much less influence, the future. Obscurantism masquerading as world-weary wisdom is a hallmark of the rightwing pinhead faction, and as always, it's meant to distract your attention. Will wants you to think about hippies doing bong hits and dreamily speculating what might happen to the bears. But it's not the hippies that are worried -- it's scientists.

Over the last few years the U.S. Geological Survey did a series of studies up in Anchorage, Alaska. Steven Amstrup, the wildlife biologist who headed the project, said, "Our results have demonstrated that as the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear." How's the sea ice? Mark Serreze, a researcher at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre who specializes on the Arctic, put it this way late last year:

If you asked me a couple of years ago when the Arctic could lose all of its ice then I would have said 2100, or 2070 maybe. But now I think that 2030 is a reasonable estimate. It seems that the Arctic is going to be a very different place within our lifetimes, and certainly within our children's lifetimes.

So the science is pretty clear. But science is beside the point with an ideologue like Will. He has to deny that polar bears are in trouble, because he correctly senses the implications.

This is his insight: if we acknowledge that the bears' survival is threatened by global warming, then "anything that can be said to increase global warming can -- must -- be said to threaten bears already designated as threatened." That means every power plant, vehicle, and leaky building could potentially be held in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

In other words: the ESA is far more radical than we dreamed when we passed it. When it was put into law, threats to species were localized: loggers who wanted a forest; a factory dumping chemicals in a river; development around a rural town. It has since become clear that the greatest threats to species are shifting climate zones, droughts, and habitat loss -- the effects of climate change. We had no idea what we were getting into.

Preventing further species extinctions from climate change will require a society-wide mobilization beyond anything in this country's history. Yet that's what our law implies. We said we'd protect the earth's other species.

Did we mean it?