Candidates say silly things to us about climate change not because they're dumb, but because they think we're dumb. But we're not dumb, and they'll start saying smart things to us when we prove to them that we're ready to think.
Consider the …
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Consider the recent South Carolina Republican gubernatorial runoff debate. Henry McMaster, the currently serving governor of South Carolina, and John Warren, his challenger, were asked if climate change is real and if it's human-caused. Both men are clearly smart enough to know that the answer is "yes" and "yes," but neither answered that way.
Looking out over the partisan crowd assembled for the debate on June 20 at the Newberry Opera House, John Warren accommodated us at our lowest and least. Having made much of his courage in battle and leadership in business, Warren showed neither courage nor leadership in his answer:
"The environment is constantly changing. I don't believe necessarily all those figures. Al Gore said that we would be 10 degrees hotter right now, which never happened. I don't know what the cause is. Twenty years ago people were talking about global cooling, so the environment is constantly changing, and I think the science is undecided in terms of the cause."
Warren is clearly smart enough to know that what he was saying is demonstrably wrong, but he knew what the crowd wanted to hear, and he gave it to them.
Gov. McMaster couldn't go quite as far as Warren in actively promoting our ignorance. He decided to cover himself with a little self-deprecating humor that got the audience laughing along with him:
"I know the water is comin' up in Charleston because it floods the city streets about 50 or 60 times a year. ... I think it's gettin' warmer. Whether it fits your definition, I don't know, but it's gettin' warmer. I know the water is comin' up. Must be something meltin' somewhere, I guess."
Perhaps Warren and McMaster had gotten the same advice from their campaign advisers that Robert Penn Warren's gubernatorial candidate got from his campaign adviser in the book All the King's Men:
"Hell, make 'em cry, or make 'em laugh, make 'em think you're their weak and erring pal, or make 'em think you're God-a-Mighty. Or make 'em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir 'em up, it doesn't matter how or why, and they'll love you and come back for more. ... Tell them anything. But for Sweet Jesus' sake don't try to improve their minds."
Most politicians are happy to play to our prejudices and preconceptions. Few lead. The silliness, the ineptitude, the lack of problem solving that we all decry in our capitols will diminish when we demonstrate that we're ready to start learning - learning about the hard choices needed to balance budgets, learning about the complexities of health care, learning about solutions to climate change that are consistent with our values.
We like to blame our problems on our politicians. We say that they don't listen to us, but they listen to us very carefully - and they parrot back what we say.
We say, "Balance the budget, but don't touch Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or defense spending, and whatever you do, don't raise our taxes." That makes it impossible to balance the budget.
We say, "In heath care we want access, affordability and quality." The reality is that it's a struggle to deliver two of those three things.
We say, "Climate change must not be true because we don't want it to be true," and the politicians tell us, "Alright, then, I'll say it's not real, and it's certainly not human-caused."
The worst of our politicians go farther. They aim us at some "other," some out-group that's supposedly the cause of our problems. History bears the horrendous scars of that sort of blame shifting.
Real change will come when we rise to full citizenship. It will come when we tell politicians that we are smart enough and serious enough to understand the facts. Then they will come to us with smart policy options, and America will lead the world to solutions on challenges like climate change. Meanwhile, the water is comin' up. Must be something meltin' somewhere, I guess.
Bob Inglis, a Republican, represented South Carolina's 4th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He directs republicEn.org, a community committed to free enterprise action on climate change.
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