15 February 2010

Utah -- the Tennessee of climate change?

In 1926, high school teacher John T. Scopes was charged with teaching evolution at Clark County High School in Dayton, Tennessee. After a famous trial, dubbed the Scopes Monkey Trial, Scopes was convicted and fined $100, a fine later set aside by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee's infamous Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach in any state-funded school or university "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."

Utah’s House of Representatives has now passed a resolution that might be thought of as true to the science-denying spirit of the Butler Act. Fortunately, because it's only a resolution, it has no force in law. Nonetheless, it illustrates the same rejection of science in favour of special interests. In the Scopes case, the vested interest was fundamentalist Christianity; in the Utah case, it is more likely king coal. Ninety per cent of the state's electricity comes from coal. Utah also has a substantial oil and gas industry with extensive deposits of tar sands and oil shale.

The resolution, which passed 56-17, calls upon the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to “immediately halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies and programs." Typically, it also trotted out a conspiracy theory. The resolution claims there is "a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome."

All is not darkness in Utah, of course. A group of Brigham Young University scientists were so disturbed by the resolution, they wrote to the legislators highlighting several errors and urged them to reconsider. "We feel it is irresponsible for some of our legislators to attempt to manipulate the scientific evidence in order to support a political agenda," they wrote. Unfortunately, the people who actually know what they are talking about were ignored. 

There are moments in science when new knowledge delivers such a shock to the human ego, large numbers of people simply can not or will not deal with it. One such moment was when Copernicus discovered heliocentricity, telling humanity in effect that we were not at the centre of the universe. Another was when Darwin discovered natural selection, telling us we weren't special, just another species evolved from a lower order. And now come climate change scientists delivering the unwelcome message that we, God's chosen species, are wrecking God's creation. It's just too much for many of us, including 56 members of the Utah House of Representatives.

This time it's different, however. If a lot of people didn't accept heliocentricity or natural selection, so what? Life went on. But if too many people don't accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming, life may go on, but civilization likely won't.

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