When I heard Mitt Romney make fun of climate change during his convention speech to great laughter--"President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet"--my mind immediately flashed back to Waveland, Miss., days after Hurricane Katrina hit. I stood on the town's main street surrounded by piles of rubble as far as my eyes could see. I've always described what I saw as akin to "carpet bombing." I can't think of another way to describe the devastation.
As Romney added the punchline, "My promise is to help you and your family," I thought of the man I interviewed in Waveland whose mother had drowned in the rising ocean waters whipped up by the fierce warmth of a Gulf hurricane. I couldn't believe Romney would joke about the effects of climate change, and certainly not at the very moment when Gulf Coast residents were trying to survive another hurricane-induced flood.
During Katrina, George W. Bush was president, and we still lived in a time when too many Republicans called climate change a "hoax." Big industry didn't want to deal with any expense or regulation that might result from the need to keep the oceans from rising or overheating, or to avoid droughts that lead to wildfires, failed crops and higher food prices. There was so little focus on possible weather-related disasters that FEMA was little more than an ineffective agency run by political appointees, as we learned so tragically.
Now, seven years later, even many Republicans are coming around to the dangers of climate change. If there is anything we now know here in Mississippi and in neighboring states, rising (or surging) oceans are nothing to belittle or use to score cheap political points.
We also know that it is time to stop using weather change as a cheap political tool and start approaching it in a bipartisan way before we lose more of the Gulf Coast and beyond. Climate change is science. It's fact. It's real--even if it is inconvenient for some industries.
So when Romney made that pitiful, distasteful joke, I thought a time machine had transported us backward to a time when politicians actually got away with making fun of "global warming." We were again in a time before Katrina created the smells of death I experienced as I walked streets of Bay St. Louis and talked to people sitting in front of rubble because they had nowhere left to go.
These were families, Mr. Romney, and they needed help then, and they need it now.
I'm not just talking about a more effective FEMA, which we have now. (Isaac showed the difference in great detail.) We need the kinds of help that come from looking beyond your next political campaign and your donor base. Our country needs leaders who are willing to put political capital on the line to, yes, help American families reduce climate risks.
How? Through a respect for science and scientists. Every time I hear a politician make fun of science because it doesn't fit a talking point--from climate change to "legitimate rape" not causing pregnancy--I think of bullies in a school ribbing the kids who actually study. The bullies are just thinking about looking cool; they only care about that moment.
Politicians who make fun of science, likewise, are looking for cheap votes, regardless of what might happen in the future to prove them wrong. By then, with luck, they'll have served their eight years and be enjoying retirement with a library in their name, so it won't matter to them if they were wrong. Ask Bush.
But too much is at stake to forsake science for short-term political gain. Beyond the disasters such an approach could hasten, there is the problem that we need more science and math education in our country. We can complain all we want about the lack of "good-paying jobs," but the fact is that many companies cannot find Americans educated enough in science and math to fill those good-paying jobs.
This is a failure of our leaders--both because they show such open contempt for good education in math and science, as well as contempt for the kinds of critical thinking that rigorous study helps create. Such critical thinking doesn't always help them politically if those thinkers decide to actually start doing the arithmetic and learn more about how debt, deficit and financial systems actually work. Those savvy citizens might actually figure out that voodoo economic systems like trickle-down economics, or "Reaganomics," don't deliver what the jokester politicians promise us. They simply do not add up.
Ask Ronald Reagan--who loved to make fun of what he called "environment extremists" who "wouldn't let you build a house unless it looked like a bird's nest." In opposing expansion of Redwood National Park and other green efforts, Reagan said: "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do." And: "Approximately 80 percent of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation, so let's not go overboard in setting and enforcing tough emission standards from man-made sources." And he cited a study that supposedly showed that "80 percent of air pollution comes not from chimneys and auto exhaust pipes, but from plants and trees."
In addition to his disrespect toward the environment, Reagan had a math problem. He first cut taxes in 1981--but then presided over massive spending (up 60 percent), passed the largest tax increase in history (raising taxes 11 times), lifted the debt ceiling 18 times, tripled the national debt and nearly doubled the federal deficit (compared to Jimmy Carter!)--all by a president who had promised to balance the budget and reduce spending.
Oh, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986 raised tax rates on those earning under $30,000 while lowering marginal tax rates for the wealthy. Sound familiar?
A major problem we face now is that many of the people who supported Reagan's vision for the wealthy then, and the throwback trickle-down economics of Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (he cites Reagan as an idol) now, don't excel on these pivotal science and math questions. Ask yourself: Are you willing to believe the science community's research on climate change? Do you want to use your math skills to figure out that someone who proposes massive tax cuts without revenue offsets might be using the wrong side of the calculator?
Put another way, Mr. Romney: Actually helping families requires a healthy respect for both math and science--not someone who drowns in contempt for both.