A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: When you don’t know anything, it is probably best to shut up and listen to those who do

Permit me to borrow a phrase that has been used consistently by Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell and any number of his colleagues on the GOP side of the aisle: I am not a scientist.

Here is my curriculum vitae on the subject: I somehow managed to survive a high school chemistry class taught by Mr. George Barstow who had been a teacher since the Roosevelt Administration – Teddy Roosevelt, I believe. He might as well have been speaking Urdu because it sure didn’t sound anything like English to me. He might just as well have stood in the front of class and read from Finnegans Wake. I got through by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.

Given that background I apparently take a different approach to the consideration of scientific issues than most public officials who proudly carry the Republican label these days and acknowledge they know little about the subject. Unlike them I lean on experts. You see, there are these people with fancy university degrees called scientists who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to a myriad of issues. I tend to listen and learn from them since, frankly, they retain some knowledge about the areas in question. I don’t, and they have no reason to lie.

One issue I specifically call on scientists to explain is climate change. I had an opportunity back in the early 1990s to attend a National Governors’ Conference and listen to a presentation on what is popularly known as global warming from the late Carl Sagan, host of the old PBS series Cosmos and questioned him for several minutes on the subject.

Sagan, in 1980, wrote this:

“The principal energy sources of our present industrial civilization are the so-called fossil fuels. We burn wood and oil, coal and natural gas, and, in the process, release waste gases, principally CO2, into the air. Consequently, the carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s atmosphere is increasing dramatically. The possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect suggests that we have to be careful: Even a one- or two- degree rise in the global temperature can have catastrophic consequences. In the burning of coal and oil and gasoline, we are also putting sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. Like Venus, our stratosphere even now has a substantial mist of tiny sulfuric acid droplets. Our major cities are polluted with noxious molecules. We do not understand the long-term effects of our course of action.’’

It’s as true today as it was 38 years ago. Sagan died in 1996 but the scientific community, with increasing urgency, is still warning about the potential dangers presented by global climate change.

And the federal government is doing practically nothing to address the problem. In fact it is marching backward. Under the direction — as opposed to the leadership — of President “Tiny’’ Trump, the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, which seeks to transition the world to renewable energy sources. And he continues to champion coal as a major source of energy. Even a dull schoolboy, which eliminates Trump, knows burning coal releases greenhouse gases that increase carbon dioxide levels, thus trapping heat and contributing to global climate change.

Late last week, the Friday after Thanksgiving, as a matter of fact, universally recognized as a news graveyard, the White House released the National Climate Assessment, a report composed by 13 federal agencies, required by Congress, that warned drastic steps are urgently required to combat climate change. Without action, the scientists cautioned, the American economy will shrink by 10 percent by the end of the century. It will cost the U.S. $118 billion as a result of rising sea levels, $141 billion from heat-related deaths and $32 billion from damage to the nation’s infrastructure.

This dangerous situation, the report went on to say, might be eased if the U.S. and other countries embrace their responsibilities. The agencies recommended that the federal government fund clean energy research, impose a tax or fee on companies that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and establish rules regulating greenhouse pollution.

Trump’s response? “I don’t believe it.’’

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers,” Trump told The Washington Post, adding that, “As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it.”

Well, let’s pass over the cheap laugh part of the statement where a man who is probably still trying to work his way through The Poky Little Puppy describes himself as being among those with “very high levels of intelligence.’’ The fact is his response fails to note what sort of climatological courses he took during his illustrious academic career that provide the sort of confidence required to summarily dismiss a report issued by your own administration warning of the dangers attached to global climate change and what to do about it.

Five will get you 10 Trump never even entered the classroom building where climate was discussed. Yet he places more faith in his gut than all the experts the federal government has at its immediate disposal.

Doesn’t that strike anyone as, well, stupid? And dangerous?

Trump in his interview with The Post didn’t bother to address the fundamental cause of climate change. He did claim “our air and our water and it’s right now at a record clean,’’ a claim he, of course, failed to support.

Trump isn’t the only officeholder snubbing what might ultimately be the greatest crisis facing Planet Earth. The aforementioned McConnell, who has a lifetime grade of seven percent on the National Environmental Scorecard issued by the League of Conservation Voters, told reporters for The Cincinnati Enquirer a few years back that he didn’t believe in man-made climate change and that, “For everybody who thinks it’s warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn’t,” which is true only if one side speaks to climate scientists and Mitch’s side speaks to the executive committee of the National Coal Association.

(For some reason ol’ Root-‘n-Branch’s claim reminds me of a commercial devised by the late, great Stan Freberg maintaining that nine out of 10 doctors recommend Chun King chow mein. It then shows the 10 doctors lined up, nine of whom happen to be Chinese. But I digress.)

Ol’ Mitch spent much of his time during the Obama Administration fighting the Clean Power Plan. If his views have changed he’s certainly not doing anything about it.

And then, of course, there is St. Matt of New Hampshire, the Commonwealth’s esteemed governor, who last January told WKRC-AM in Cincinnati, “this idea that we all need to be held hostage to a handful of people who . . . [want] to make us jump through various regulatory hoops, as if somehow, we, mankind is solely responsible and is solely going to be the solution, is ludicrous.”

And it must be said, our boy Bevin knows something about being ludicrous.

None of the members of the Kentucky delegation, save for Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, can be expected to seriously address the issue of global climate change. Each and every one is beholden to coal interests and are married to the proposition that the industry, like a phoenix, is going to rise from the ashes in the commonwealth and once again assert its position as king.

Fat chance. Despite Trump’s promises, coal jobs in Kentucky continue to decline.

When I would say something especially stupid in chemistry class, which was often, Mr. Barstow would smile, shake his head and say, “You’re right, Mr. Straub. It’s the rest of the world that’s wrong.’’

The same can be said for those who would deny global climate change.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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