Environment Politics

Viewpoint: My little debate with Jeff Miller on climate change (video)

August 15, 2013

By Larry Chamblin

I approached the Scenic 90 Diner at 6:45 Tuesday (8-13) morning with the knowledge that I was headed into a political environment that I understand mostly from reading local letters to the editor. In other words, I don’t know many people on the right. So, here am I, a transplanted Marylander–a state with Democrats in control of the legislature and the governorship–about to enter a town hall meeting with one of the most conservative members of the US House of Representatives, Jeff Miller. I anticipated that the diner would be packed with Miller supporters and people to his right.

My expectations were immediately fulfilled. The meeting was moderated by Dan Parker, a radio talk show host at WCAO-AM, a Pensacola station that carries Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Rep. Miller began by commenting on a few issues he knew were of interest to his base, including immigration (“We must first secure the borders…”) and Obamacare (“We have voted 40 times to repeal it….”). This last comment drew the loud cheers and shouts of approval from the largely male gathering.

Dan Parker asked my general question about climate change, eliciting another diatribe against President Obama–“He wants to shut down all coal plants and bankrupt the state of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.” Then Miller said, “This whole thing about climate change is not doing our nation any good.”

As that point, I asked if I could follow up on these comments. Parker motioned me to the table, where he and Miller were sitting. Here is my best reconstruction of the dialogue that followed:

LC: “You know, the scientific community is almost unanimous in its belief in climate change.”

JM: “No, it’s not.” Here the crowd cheered Miller, while a few shouted out, “Yes it is.”

LC: “The US Navy considers climate change a major threat to national security. Admiral Locklear, commander of Pacific operations, calls climate change the biggest threat to security in the region….The insurance industry sees climate change as a big risk, and they’re in the business of assessing risk….The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank see it as a major risk. The head of the World Bank recently said that economic development in the developing world will be at risk because of climate change.” Parker said I should ask my question.

LC: “My question is how can you deny and continue to vote against climate change at every chance? You’re voting against the EPA at every chance.” There were loud cheers, and a steady buzz spread through the diner. A few shouted out, “Yes you are.” My turn was up, and I walked away.

Miller pumped up the crowd with his assertion, “I will tell you this, I will defund the EPA.” Loud cheers and applause. He went on to elaborate on his usual talking point about how the EPA’s regulations have slowed the nation’s economic engine and killed jobs. I shouted out, “How do you answer what the Navy says about climate change?” From the crowd came a shout, “The admiral is an idiot.” Miller ignored this comment and explained that Admiral Locklear is a loyal member of the Obama team who supports clean energy for the Navy even if it costs more. (I wish I had pressed the point that the US and European defense establishments view climate change as a serious threat, likely to multiply local conflicts by creating food and water shortages and climate refugees.)

Miller said that scientists he trusts say that climate has always changed according to natural cycles. A few years ago, he said, scientists were telling us we were entering a new ice age. This is a common story for climate change deniers and is misleading. In the 1970s, a few scientists predicted the coming of a new ice age, and their research received considerable media attention precisely because it contradicted what most scientists were predicting. The ice age theory never had anything close to the kind of consensus that climate change enjoys among scientists today.

At this point, Miller pulled out his trump card. “The climate will continue to change because of the way God formed the earth.” Loud clapping, laughter and shouts of “That’s right!” (So God is responsible for climate change? In my Sunday school classes I was taught that God gave humans a mind and free will and the responsibility for caring for the earth.)

Case closed? Well, not really. But, I am left with the conclusion that some minds are closed and it will take a great deal of effort and–more to the point–more superstorms, drought, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and devastated coastal communities to open those minds. Among US coastal areas, Northwest Florida is less vulnerable than South Florida, Louisiana and some other areas because of such factors as elevation, land subsidence and erosion. Nonetheless, it is irresponsible for a congressman representing communities from Perdido Key to Rosemary Beach to be so glib in dismissing the settled science of climate change and the rising seas and stronger storms that will impact our communities in the decades ahead.

Have Jeff Miller and others who reject climate science–like many who packed the Scenic Highway Diner on Aug. 13–learned nothing from Hurricane Sandy? That storm was not caused by climate change, but the damage it did to properties and lives in New Jersey and New York was much greater because of higher seas, more moisture in the atmosphere, and other results of climate change.

We need to act now to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change. Miller’s willful ignorance–or political cowardice–is making that more difficult.

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