Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Oct 25, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his latest columns.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly free-for-all. As usual, everything's on the table. I guess Rick Perry is rolling out an economic plan, although he seems to have been diverted by a spasm of birtherism, which is sooooo over. Herman Cain's campaign gets weirder every day, especially with the release of his first campaign ad, which is almost indescribable. Mitt Romney plods ahead. And meanwhile, President Obama is out there drumming up support for his jobs bill, which has (predictably) no support at all from congressional Republicans. My column today, for reference, isn't about any of that. It's about global warming -- specifically, new research by one of the scientists most widely cited and praised by the diehard skeptics. The researcher, Richard Muller of Berkeley, now says he was wrong. "Global warming is real," he wrote in a WSJ op-ed last week. Wonder how Perry, Cain, Bachmann and others who pooh-pooh climate change will react. Probably with their hands over their ears... Let's get started.

Contrary to what you claim about "global warming," nothing has been settled. Global "warming" and global "cooling" have been going on for billions of years, way before us puny humans could remotely even had the intellectual audacity to believe we influenced climate. Paraphrasing a Charles Dickens character, it is better to remain "umble" and not claim to know the truth before having all the facts. Indiana Jones would agree.

Your view sounds reasonable but really isn't, I'm afraid. We humans may be puny, but we do have the power to affect the planet on a large scale. Scientists have to look for the best possible explanation of the phenomena they encounter. The best explanation of this abrupt warming is the greenhouse effect from carbon dioxide, methane and other gases.

Although I'm glad to hear more support for what, to me, is an obvious warming trend, I find Muller's article in the WSJ to be incredibly smug. Just because "his" research group has done the same study as many other research groups, only now are the results believable? I'm glad he was finally convinced, but does he really have so little respect for his peers that he can't reach the same conclusions by critically reviewing the multitude of work already done?

I can't speak for Muller, but... well, actually, I'll try to do just that. I think he would say that his questions could only be answered by performing his own analysis of the temperature data -- is there a "heat island" effect, is the data cherry-picked, what about the allegation that some parts of the world have seen cooling instead of warming? I believe his view was that these issues were not dealt with by other research groups, at least to his satisfaction, so he gathered together all the data he could find -- much more than anyone else has looked at -- and concluded that, yep, warming is real.

Richard Muller's research around global warming won't make a bit of difference to the Repubican Party. They no longer believe we should look to science for answers - it's all about faith. If something should be a certain way, then that's the way it is. We shouldn't do anythng to combat global warming because that will cost money and possibly jobs. Because of that argument, their twisted logic says that global warming doesn't exist, it's a hoax, and we should stop spending money on reserach. There is no way to argue with this. Before people vote, they need to decide if facts and science matter anymore.

I agree. In fairness, I should note that not all Republicans are anti-science -- Romney (though he pretends otherwise), Huntsman, even Ron Paul (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt). If they want to argue the jobs issue, they should weigh the costs against what inaction will cost down the road. But magical thinking isn't an argument.

What do you think of Rick Perry's tax plan? It appears to be mainly recycled from previous Republican campaigns. The main focus is to drastically lower the taxes on the wealthy while sharply reducing Medicare and Medicaid as well as the budgets of most agencies in the government. Apparently, the fact that income inequalty is greater today than it's been in 40 years is a good reason to increase income inequality even more drastically through the tax code. Then he goes on to say that that any criticism of his plan is class warfare. I agree, but not they way he thinks it's class warfare. He's declaring war on the poor and middle class Americans, because to him, the wealthy and obscenely weathy aren't wealthy enough. Will this be enough to reinvigorate his campaign and defeat Romney?

I doubt it. "Let's have greater inequality" is not a winning platform. It might be enough to keep him rolling in campaign cash, though.

Yours is the second article that I have seen about studies attempting to debunk climate change that have achieved the opposite. I'm not sure if you are quoting the same study or if this is the second such study. (The first one I read was at least a month or two ago.) Anyway, The next logical step, now that no one can deny climate change, is to recognize that the implications of climate change are far, far more serious than the current economic crisis. We need to start doing things differently today, and our leaders need to shift their focus to the really serious issue of the perilous state of our economy. Funny thing: since the main cause of our climate crisis is consumption, an economic collapse might be an important first step towards fighting climate change, since consumption would drop enormously.

I hope there's a less painful way to take that first step. Why not approach lowering our fossil fuel consumption the way we approached the moon landing? Not with trepidation, but with ambition. And we should also focus on the other necessary crusade, which is getting China, India, Brazil and other fast-developing countries to join us. We can lead this transformation. At the moment, we're not even tagging along for the ride.

While this research is heartening, I don't think it will do anything to persuade the people who separate the phenomenon of global warming from the idea that human activity is responsible for it. What would you say to those people?

I would say that human activity is the one known explanation that fits the observed facts. If they have a better explanation, let's hear it. And as for the argument that we shouldn't take action because of a mere "theory," I'd point out that we act on our theories all the time -- especially if the cost of inaction is huge.

Whatever your opinions and politics are, I always find it ironic when people who are middle class or low incomed support candidates who support flat taxes. Someone please correct me if I am wrong, yet to me it should be obvious that any removal of progressivity in taxes, which happens with flat taxes, means that the poor and middle incomes will pay more in taxes, and the rich will pay less. A flat tax may have some merits, but equity is not one of them.

The thing is, when middle-class voters look at what a flat tax would mean for them, as individuals and families -- no mortgage interest deduction, etc. -- they add up the numbers and change their opinions. I suspect that's why we don't have a flat tax  now.

Does the appearance of Muller's article in the WSJ, as opposed to WaPo or NYT, indicate any kind of shift in the conservative *elite's* views on this topic? And in your view, how did protecting the environment become a partisan issue? Nixon was the president who founded the EPA in the 1st place!

Some in the conservative establishment made much of the phony "climategate" non-scandal, but the editors of the WSJ editorial and op-ed pages are too sophisticated to be anti-science. They might make an economic argument about what we should or shouldn't do, but they don't reject the scientific method.

is that conservatives are already beginning to shift their arguments -- you can see them doing it -- from their longtime position that climate change isn't real (or the variation: even if it's happening, it's not caused or even exacerbated by humans), so we shouldn't do anything about it, to their obvious future position that it's just too bad, too late, nothing we can do about it now, so we shouldn't even try, and the best we can do is hope to adapt to the changes. (I predict that when the worst impacts to poorer areas of the world really kick in, we will circle the wagons, go super-isolationist, put all our resources toward saving ourselves (or at least the richer selves), and deny any responsibility for helping the rest of the world. But I'm cynical that way.)

As you probably know, we're already going to have to adapt to changes caused by the carbon emissions we've already put into the atmosphere. It's also true that unilateral action by the United States -- not that conservatives are willing to countenance any such thing -- would not solve the problem if China, India and the other big industrializing powers don't come along. But none of this constitutes a reason for inaction. The perfect can't be the enemy of the good.

Gene, I love Obama and think a lot of the criticism tossed his way is unfair or unfounded. But I have to wonder what happened to the nimble, quick-response team from the campaign. In particular, I wonder why he dithered so long with a mortgage refi program that was so restrictive it accomplished nothing. A more encompassing plan that would allow responsible homeowners to refi their mortgages would have quite the multiplier effect: a few hundred more dollars per month for homeowners, plus a kick start for the housing market. Why wait so long for a plan that would be popular and actually help the middle class and the economy?

I don't know. I don't know.

Gene, please clarify that when a scientist uses the word "theory" it doesn't mean the same thing as when you or I use the word in casual conversation. "Theory" to a scientist means an explanation that accounts for all the known facts, subject to revision or rejection when new information comes to light. Gravity is a scientific "theory", and is not questioned by most people, despite the fact that it's much liklier to be disproven in our lifetimes than Climate Change.

Thank you. You explained the use of the word more eloquently than I could.

Oh gracious, of all the arguments againt climate change, the "us puny ole humans" argument makes my blood boil with its disingenuousness. You know how many of us puny ole humans are on this planet? nearly 7 billion. We have transferred countless invasive plants and diseases from place to place; created a massive floating pile of trash in the ocean; caused the extinction of thousands of animal, plant, and microbial species; caused the destruction of huge swaths of old growth (heck, new growth too) forest...I'm pretty sure we are capable of a global greenhouse effect as well.

And indeed we are capable of effecting change on a massive scale. Just ask the herds of buffalo who roamed the Plains in the millions. Just ask the mastodons...

Pardon my pessimism, but I don't think it matters one bit what politicians claim they will do "if elected". The way Washington is gridlocked, it's not likely anyone could actually change anything significant once they take the oath of office. Obama was lucky to get his health care bill enacted, but we're still quibbling about repealing it. It's all so very tiresome... Can't we all just get along? Do they not realize how tired of all this the average citizen truly is?!? Do they even care? Sigh.

I believe the American people feel your pain. There is much that this nation needs to accomplish, and our political system seems incapable of tieing its shoelaces, much less tackling the Big Issues. This has to change. But I don't know when or how.

I tune in to political chats because I enjoy the ability to read Every(wo)man's opinions and thoughts on what affects us all. However, I hate when a poster begins with "those idiot [fill in the blank] don't know anything and really belong back under that rock of stupidity from whence they came!!" Okay, so I'm paraphrasing here but it is really unnecessary to name call. These are our neighbors, friends, coworkers and family. We each have opinions and they may be widely divergent (some say repugnant) but I think - I hope - we are all aiming at the same goal of having the best country we can. If we can go at this with some respect and decorum, it would go a long way toward getting everyone into the conversation without requiring them to put up their dukes and make sure their locked and loaded. Unclench and listen. Please. Oh, and thanks for these chats. I don't always agree with you but am appreciative of your input.

Thanks for writing. I agree, and I hope this chat is a place where it's possible to disagree without demonizing.

Check out some information about the Maldives. The highest point in the country is 8 ft above sea level, the average height is about 5 ft above sea level. Any increase in sea level is a danger to the existence of their country to the point that they are looking to buy land where they could relocate in case sea levels rise too much.

True. And the way things are going, we'd better start taking a hard look at the coastal defenses of some of our major cities. Seriously.

Sorry I am not going to lower my standard of living or change my lifestyle when iit will make no difference when it comes to global warming. mr Robinson if you had the power and could wave your magic wand and change all the internal combustion engines in the Us to hybrids or battery powered it wouldnt effect global warming at all. See Road and Track Feb 2008. Problem is 6 billion Indians and Chinese trump 320 million Americans. therefore I am not going to do squat about global warming. If the govt tries to force me then I will lead an armed revolt and overthrow US govt and torture and execute socialists like you and Comrade Barry!. Remember us rural dwellers have all the guns and we know how to survice urban dwelling condo dwellers dont have a clue.

I normally wouldn't have answered your question because you so violate the civility rule. You also, if I'm not mistaken, threaten the life of the President of the United States; I wanted to make sure the Secret Service was aware. Have a nice week.

I also wanted to answer what seems to be your point -- that China and India will continue to spew carbon, so there's no point in our cutting back. First, that's illogical -- just because we can't do it all, that doesn't mean we shouldn't do what we can. Second, why do you assume (wrongly) that China and India won't cut their emissions too? They have as much at stake as we do.

Since Obama lost the "white" vote last time, even with Sarah Palin on the ticket, do you think he can win this time if all the "minorities" don't come out in full force again (for him, of course)?

If I'm not mistaken, Obama got more of the white vote than John Kerry did. That's a Democratic Party problem, not an Obama problem. You do make a point, though, which is that the president won larger-than-average majorities among African Americans and Latinos, and he needs to come as close as he can to duplicating those margins.

I thought distractive was just a Bush-ism.

Perry's vocabulary should not be misunderestimated.


And with that, folks, I have to sign off. Time's up for today. Thanks for joining me, and I'll see you again next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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