Think Horses, Not Unicorns (A message to people who have bought the Republican line on climate change)

In medicine there’s a saying, “When you hear hoof beats, think of horses not zebras.” Whatever’s going on is far more likely to be the usual than the extraordinary.

But when it comes to climate change, the Republicans are telling Americans not to think horses, or even zebras. They’re saying, think unicorns. Republicans want Americans to believe that the alarm about climate change is based on a scientific hoax.

Republicans used to claim that the science was inconclusive. Fifteen years ago I was on television in Virginia debating the issue against a local Republican official who took that party-line position. But with so powerful a consensus among the experts – 97% — the Republicans have taken the fall-back position that climate science is a hoax.

This hoax would have to be beyond extraordinary. Over the course of history, there have been hoaxes in science – a scientist or two creating false evidence. But if any scientific hoax has involved more than two or three people, I have been unable to discover it.

The scientific studies that show the disruption of the earth’s climate due to human activities have been the work of thousands of scientists, from nations all over the world, conducted over decades.

A scientific hoax of that magnitude is beyond improbable.


If we ought not to believe in this unicorn, is there a horse around to explain the hoof beats?

In fact, there is. We have an industry doing what other industries have done in similar situations. And we have a political party doing what it has done again and again.

The 97% of climate scientists who agree that there’s human-caused climate change also say that it would be irresponsible for civilized societies to fail to take action to avert –- or, by this time, simply to lessen — the possible disasters ahead. Taking action, in this case, means weaning ourselves from our addiction to fossil fuels.

It’s not all that long since science discovered that another powerful industry’s addictive products were having deadly results. That industry worked for decades to sow doubt where there was no good reason for doubt. Eventually, it was revealed that they had known the truth for years.

I’m talking, of course, about the tobacco industry.

But it’s not just tobacco. Whenever industries have discovered that their profits depended on sacrificing other people — like for example, the asbestos and chemical industries — they’ve done their best to hide or deny the truth. Is there an exception?

For the energy companies to protect their profits by persuading millions of people to reject science would be nothing unusual. The stakes may be unprecedented, given the potential catastrophes we may be unleashing, but the choice of greed over caring for the greater good would fit a pattern.

It has been documented for well over a decade that climate change denial is largely funded by energy industries. Like the tobacco company executives all claiming that they did not believe nicotine was addictive or that their products were killing people, oil companies know better than what they tell the public.

(I was told by two inside sources that by the time of the George W. Bush presidency, the oil companies were acknowledging behind closed doors that the scientists’ warnings were correct, but were resolved to maintain their campaign to prevent the American public from knowing the truth.)

Corporations protecting profits even at great cost to the greater good is no zebra or unicorn, but a common horse.

Then there’s the relationship between the politicians and these huge energy corporations, among the richest and most powerful organizations in the world. The Republicans, especially, have a history of doing their bidding,– shouting “Drill, Baby, Drill,” protecting the subsidies we taxpayers still pay out to oil companies long after the original reason for them vanished along with $15-a-barrel oil. And this campaign to discredit the urgent warnings from the scientists that there’s big danger ahead and we’d better start steering our ship away from that iceberg.

No surprise that the Republican Party – no longer the Party of Teddy Roosevelt or even Richard Nixon when it comes to the environment— would choose to protect not the stability of our climate but the interests of the corporations who are their political partners.

There’s a choice. One can believe that we have a huge conspiracy to commit a scientific hoax -– bigger by many orders of magnitude than anything ever seen before. Or one can believe that we have powerful corporations and the political party that serves them following a well-established pattern of deception for the sake of profits.

With the issue of climate change now front and center in our political arena, it’s about time Americans approached it from a shared reality. It really shouldn’t be that hard.

Think horses.

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