LONE STAR GREEN: Climate change denial and Lamar Smith’s magical unicorn ride

unicorn awards
Mobi Warren, founder of advocacy organization, speaks on the need for an aggressive and concerted climate response outside the Tetco building in San Antonio. Image credit: Greg Harman.

The early Greeks knew a thing or two about unicorns. With elephant feet and a boar’s tail, these “Indian asses” were said to have a single horn that offered protection from deadly drugs.

These days, the unicorn has devolved to a candy-colored rainbow-riding cultural meme heralding the most fantastical and ridiculous sides of ourselves. The last remaining champion of the unicorn’s historical authenticity may be North Korea’s state news agency, which reported last year the location of the burial site of the uni-horned beast ridden by that kingdom’s founding father 2,000 years ago.

The propagandic declaration only further satirized natural history’s most flamboyant outlier. Yet it would seem we’re not done with the likes of Princess Celestia and King Sombra of My Little Pony fame. Earlier this month, 18 members of Texas’ Congressional delegation earned shiny new “unicorn awards,” presented by an array of environmental groups intended to recognize each member’s “exceptional extremism and ignoring the overwhelming judgement of science.”

The awards, received by the likes of U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and House Reps Lamar Smith and Joe Barton, are meant to suggest that not believing mainstream climate science is akin to holding a management position at the Korean Central News Agency.

“It’s unbelievable,” Carlos Morales told me minutes before he and two dozen other protestors stormed San Antonio’s Tetco tower to deliver the award to U.S. Rep Lamar Smith’s office. “It’s unbelievable in two ways: that they don’t believe in climate change and how bad it’s actually gotten.”

These climate-change “deniers” targeted by President Obama’s activist wing, Organizing for Action, are guilty of utilizing a range of rhetoric meant to delay as long as possible concerted, aggressive policies to freeze greenhouse gas emissions driving global temperatures ever higher. That doesn’t always mean denying global climate change outright.

In a recent Washington Post column, Smith cobbles together a range of climatic and economic statistics meant to suggest that climate action will damage U.S. businesses more than stalling climate chaos will benefit the nation. In his call for more dialogue, he overlooks both the job-creation potential of an energy-sector transformation and the coming price tag (not to mention human suffering) linked to climate change.

Low-carbon alternatives like solar, wind, and new building technologies represent nearly two million jobs, a trio of reports found back in 2009. And the World Bank reported this month that coastal communities worldwide will be battered to the tune of $1 trillion by 2050 due to rising seas, coastal subsidence, and strengthening storms. Nearly 40 percent of that damage is expected to hit just four cities: New York City, Miami, New Orleans, and Guangzhou in China.

Smith makes another gaffe by suggesting that U.S. action on climate change would make inconsequential changes in future temperatures and therefore is not worth the investment. A shift of .08 of a degree does seem small, but considering that our current course is for a seven-degree rise this century and all the devastation that entails, a fraction of a degree in the other direction would be a huge victory.

Smith and others want to continue studying climate change in spite of consensus among the most prominent research institutions on the planet and a 97-percent agreement among researchers who have studied the issue that human industry is the main driver of today’s warming.

Denialism’s history is a long and bloody one. Big Tobacco feigned ignorance of smoking’s cancer link for decades while profits – and the number of lung-cancer deaths – rose. Similarly, vinyl chloride production was linked to liver damage and cancer long before reform came. “From the very first reports that vinyl chloride could dissolve the finger bones of workers, cause cancer in animals and deform babies, industry had a simple response: more research is needed,” writes epidemiologist Devra Davis in The Secret History of the War on Cancer.

“All scientific work is incomplete,” renowned public health researcher, Dr. Harriet Hardy, reminded us many years ago. “That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have.”

Flat-earthers and believers in rainbow-riding unicorns are still among us. If Smith and Company want to wait for 100-percent agreement while running defense for the most polluting industries on the planet, they’ll be waiting (and running) a long time. Perhaps those fleet-footed unicorns will come in handy, after all.

This column appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.