Speaking on a nationally syndicated radio program, Michael Steele, whose official job title is Embattled Chairman of the Republican National Committee, placed himself in opposition to empirically observed reality earlier this month when he denied the existence of global warming.
Mr. Steele who was filling in for conservative pundit Bill Bennett on Mr. Bennett's drive-time "Morning in America" call-in show on March 6, responded to a caller who mocked the concept of global warming. Here is Steele's response, as transcribed by the Huffington Post's Sam Stein:
"Thank you, thank you," he said. "We are cooling. We are not warming. The warming you see out there, the supposed warming, and I am using my finger quotation marks here, is part of the cooling process. Greenland, which is now covered in ice, it was once called Greenland for a reason, right? Iceland, which is now green. Oh I love this. Like we know what this planet is all about. How long have we been here? How long? No[t] very long."
Steele managed to pack many factual inaccuracies into this statement. The notion that the planet has entered a cooling phase is a common – but highly misleading – trope among climate change deniers, who often cite temperature readings that show that the hottest year on record was 1998, implying that the planet has been steadily cooling since then.
But it hasn't. According to Britain’s Met Office, which has been recording temperature data since 1850, the next 10 warmest years after 1998 were, in order, 2005, 2003, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2001, 1997, 2008, and 1995.
One could argue that the earth has entered a cooling phase because each of the last three years have been successively colder. That would be a lot like declaring that the US economy has entered a recovery because the Dow is higher than it was last week.
And as for Steele's suggestion that Greenland was named so because it was covered in vegetation and not ice at the time, one could deploy the same logic to argue that the West Indies migrated halfway around the globe over the past five centuries. Alternatively, one could say it's just a name.
The island was christened "Greenland" in the 10th century AD by Erik the Red, who picked the verdant moniker to attract settlers from Iceland. Mr. the Red wasn't trying to scam prospective Greenlanders: the southern portion of the island really did have green valleys, as it does today.
Samples of prehistoric DNA have revealed that the last time the entire Arctic island could rightly be described as "green" was between 450,000 and 800,000 years ago, well before the emergence of any Homo sapiens who could have appended a signifier to the island. The earliest fossils of anatomically modern humans are about 130,000 years old.
Steele's denial of scientific findings of manmade global warming is moderately representative of his party. A May 2008 Pew survey found that only 49 percent of Republicans believe that the earth is warming, compared with 84 percent of Democrats. According to the poll, only 27 percent of Republicans believe that human activity is warming the globe, compared with 84 percent of Democrats. Among climatologists, this number is 97 percent.
Steele's assertion that humans have not been here very long is very much in line with the beliefs of a majority of Republicans: A June 2008 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Republicans believe that God created humans "as is" within the last 10,000 years and that humans did not develop over millions of years, assertions that are contradicted by overwhelming evidence from a range of scientific disciplines.
Of course, not all Republicans are as dismissive of science as Steele. I emailed Jim DiPeso, Policy Director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. Here's what he had to say:
Michael Steele has the potential to re-brand the Republican Party by helping it do a better job of reaching out to constituencies that the party has done a poor job of engaging. One thing that the party must do is make a convincing case that it is rediscovering the traditional conservative ethic of good stewardship of our natural heritage, including the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide has an effect on global temperatures. It is basic physics that has been well understood for a long time. To suggest otherwise is nonsense. The debate we should be having is not about the physics of global warming, but about the policy choices that we should make to reduce the risks associated with global warming.
Michael's comment, unfortunately, sends a message that the party has no plans to change in the wake of two consecutive election debacles. I hope that is not Michael's intent. He should focus on reaching out to new constituencies, and leave climate science to the climatologists.