Guest columnist Joe Silverman: The biggest lie

  • In this July 19, 2007 file photo, an iceberg melts off the coast of Ammasalik, Greenland. AP

Published: 2/18/2021 2:06:14 PM

The essential element of the impeachment trial is what the House manager called, the “Big Lie,” that the election was stolen due to massive fraud. While the focus of the impeachment has been on those who were there to commit violence, many others were there nonviolently to protest an election that they truly believe was stolen.

The 2020 election and its aftermath revealed, yet again, the deep rupture in our politics; a division that reflects the alternative realities in the minds of the American people. We cannot solve our problems if we disagree about what those problems are and, especially, if the major problem is seen as the very existence of those on the other side of the partisan divide. It’s right versus left, red against blue, battling for the soul of the nation — while the actual threats facing us are being neglected.

This lack of agreement on fundamental truths will have its most dangerous and long-lasting impact in regards to the climate crisis. While polls show an increase in the percentage of Americans who accept that the climate is changing, it is still a highly partisan issue and many do not think that it should be a priority for governmental intervention, will affect them personally, is caused by human activity or even that scientists agree on the facts.

A recurring theme in movies and books is when warring factions come together to fight a common enemy and it’s unfortunate that climate change has become such an intensely partisan issue when, like the pandemic, it should be a compelling cause that unites us. But the alternative facts that have been spread about COVID, the vaccine, the election, and the climate crisis has been dangerous to our democracy, health and, most critically, to the very survival of our planet.

Unless Americans in both blue and red states accept, understand and feel the necessity of immediate action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we stand little chance of achieving the IPCC target of well below 2 degrees of warming. It’s often said that there are solutions to this crisis and the only thing lacking is the political will; however, I contend that the missing factor is the social will. And the prevalence and persistence of disinformation on global warming prevents that from developing. This need for public consensus on the climate crisis is critical because:

1) Many elected politicians will not support strong climate action until their constituents demand it and they risk being voted out of office. Similarly, many businesses and corporations won’t adopt meaningful green practices until consumers force them to do so with their purchasing decisions.

2) The climate policies of the Biden administration, even if they get past congressional obstruction, are likely to be met with resistance, as there is a limit to the government’s ability to legislate or compel changes in behavior. We saw this in the fierce resistance to wearing masks and, in the past, complaints about trivial acts such as changing light bulbs. The responses needed to reduce greenhouse emissions will require more significant lifestyle adjustments and, given the current partisan environment, the opposition to those changes will be considerably greater.

3) The transition to renewable energies is absolutely necessary but not sufficient. In addition to changing the source of energy, behavioral changes are needed to reduce the demand — and that’s where the actions of individuals and communities make a difference. A recent report of the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that household consumption accounts for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions; however, the impact of personal decisions is largely missing from discussions about what’s needed to reach climate goals.

What can be done about the excess of dangerous disinformation? It occurs to me that the federal government employs thousands who report to the Director of National Intelligence and, what this country needs now, is more intelligence to counter the proliferation of alternative facts. That department was created following 9/11 and has focused on foreign threats, but many of the threats we now face are internal. The intelligence gathered by the DNI provides daily briefings for the president and occasional ones for Congress, but perhaps a program could be set up within that department to gather and promote intelligence to the American public.

While First Amendment protections prevent censorship of popular media channels, including social media, a comprehensive, politically neutral, presentation of intelligence briefs on critical issues could counter some of that disinformation.

Joe Silverman lives in Florence.

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