Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, and Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock.
By David Shiffman
The evidence for global climate change is overwhelming. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists, along with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and more than 30 professional scientific research societies, agree that climate change is happening because of human actions and that it will be an increasingly serious problem if we don’t stop it. It is reasonable for politicians to debate the best way to solve this problem, but whether it is a problem should not be up for discussion anymore. However, in response to questions about climate change, political candidates, including high-profile politicians such as Senate Minority (for now) Leader Mitch McConnell, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are frequently saying: “I’m not a scientist.”
When politicians say “I’m not a scientist,” it is an exasperating evasion. It’s a cowardly way to avoid answering basic and important policy questions. This response raises lots of other important questions about their decision-making processes. Do they have opinions on how to best maintain our nation’s highways, bridges, and tunnels—or do they not because they’re not civil engineers? Do they refuse to talk about agriculture policy on the grounds that they’re not farmers? How do they think we should be addressing the threat of ISIS? They wouldn’t know, of course; they’re not military generals.
No one would ever say these things, because they’re ridiculous. Being a policymaker in a country as large and complex as the United States requires making decisions on a variety of important subjects outside of your primary area of expertise. Voters wouldn’t tolerate this “I’m not a scientist” excuse if applied to any other discipline, yet politicians appear to be using this line successfully to distance themselves from experts crucial for solving many of our country’s most important problems.
American populist rhetoric has always had a dark side of anti-intellectualism, the belief that the common sense of the average man on the street is equal to or greater than the expert knowledge of people who spend years studying a particular question, and that has been on full display in recent years. Who can understand what those weird, other-worldly scientists are talking about, anyway? Somebody needs to “stand up to the experts.” Despite what any politician says, the overwhelming evidence supports the scientific consensus that climate change is happening because of human activity and that we should take action to stop it because it will be a significant threat—a position the U.S. military agrees with.
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