Global Climate Change Threatens Our Democracy as Well as Our Coastlines

MYRTLE GROVE, LA - SEPTEMBER 3:  Plaquemines Parish emergency workers rush to lay out tubes to be filled with water to height
MYRTLE GROVE, LA - SEPTEMBER 3: Plaquemines Parish emergency workers rush to lay out tubes to be filled with water to heighten a levee following heavy rains from Tropical Storm Lee that hit the area September 3, 2011 in Myrtle Grove, Louisiana. The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned of heavy rain across southeastern and south-central Louisiana and forcasted that the storm would continue its slow, potentially erratic motion toward the north or northwest over the next day. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber/Getty Images)

This week, scientists announced that the Western Antarctic ice sheet had begun to collapse, portending an irreversible rise in sea levels. Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), GOP star and potential 2016 Presidential candidate, recently went on national television to say that "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it." He is not alone: 23 percent of Americans do not accept the fact of climate change, and 37 percent believe that climate change is the result of natural fluctuations, rather than human activity.

The fact is, anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is happening. This isn't a theory born of politics. The knowledge comes to us from science. A community of highly trained scientists, with rigorous standards for evidence, has pretty much unanimously agreed upon these facts. This is the same science that allows us to fly airplanes, predict thunderstorms and build houses to withstand them, and have tiny computers that fit into the palm of our hands. We never seem to question its value when science gives us what we want. Yet too many of us choose to ignore the fact of climate change.

According to the 20th century political theorist Hannah Arendt, we often incredibly hostile to facts that go against our interests, ignoring them or trying to reduce them to one opinion among many. Yet we cannot expect to have any sort of enduring political community if we do not respect those things she termed "brutally elementary data." This concerns the things we cannot change just because we don't like them: which country invaded which country; who received the most votes in an election; whether or not global temperatures have risen since 1950.

Of course, we will disagree vehemently about what to do. That is the stuff of democratic politics. But democratic debate requires we begin with the actual facts. We should argue about whether to put dramatic reductions in emissions ahead of, say, economic growth, or whether to pursue mitigation or adaptation strategies moving forward -- but we destroy the very fabric of our reality when we refuse to acknowledge the basic factual truths that should inform policymaking. As Arendt noted, factual truth "is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us."

And the problem for democracy goes even deeper than this. In the popular imagination, democracy is about freedom. Democracy holds out a promise that we will get to make choices about what we will do in our community. But each time we choose to ignore the factual truths staring right at us, we ensure that future generations will have fewer and fewer choices. Investments in education or the arts? Too bad -- every single dime will need to go into flood controls and drought mitigation because previous generations did nothing. Ignoring the factual truth about anthropogenic climate change means we are dramatically limiting the opportunities and choices of future generations -- at best. At worst, we aren't ruining their democracy, because there will not be a "them" anyway.

In fact, this link between democracy and freedom for future generations has deep roots in the United States. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a 1789 letter to James Madison that "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living." By this, he meant that our resources are only ours for safekeeping. Jefferson believed that no generation should bind future citizens to a particular policy, arguing that every new law should expire in 19 years. The real freedom to make choices about one's community, without being overly burdened by the decisions made by previous generations, was a fundamental element of democracy in Jefferson's mind. The challenges posed by anthropogenic climate change make this connection more clear -- and more pressing -- than ever before.

Of course, it is really hard to figure out what we should do about climate change. Do you stop driving your car to pick up your kids or get groceries? Would it even make a difference if you did? Individual efforts are woefully inadequate. This is one reason why we absolutely must find a national and international approach to climate change -- now. But this will remain out of reach until more Americans -- and potential Presidents -- are able to accept things as they really are and see the critical link between dealing with climate change and the endurance of the American democratic experiment.