Big policy changes are driven not by reflection but by cataclysm — foreign attacks on Americans, our own declarations of war, economic depression, or any circumstance that sharpens the nation's awareness of peril or widespread injustice, like the scenes of repression in the South that preceded the enactment of the historic civil rights laws in the 1960s.
The strictures of public opinion and politics thus are loosened, and the ponderous government machine finally moves, though not always with perfect wisdom.
So how do you account for the climate-change enigma of 2011, the lack of any serious debate about what to do about global warming in the midst of one of the most turbulent weather years in modern history?
Arkansas sets summer temperature records, as do swaths of the South and Southwest, Texas experiences perhaps its worst drought ever, the plains endure great floods again, and the atmospheric moisture from warming seas dumps epic snows on the Northeast, all of which oblige the 25-year-old models of climate change.
Let's be clear that a 114-degree reading in Little Rock or even Texas's parching drought, which still will have to go some to beat the state's decade-long drought of the late '40s and early '50s, are not themselves cinching proof of global warming but only indicators of the rising odds. Atmospheric change is not supposed to repeal the seasons but only gradually increase the prospects and severity of big weather events.
But the severe weather and escalating evidence of change — consult Arkansas farmers about the steadily expanding growing season, for good or ill — are the kinds of events that ordinarily would compel a torrid debate and probably some demagoguery. Imagine, if you can, that global warming were a Republican issue. Republicans would be demanding the impeachment of Barack Obama.
But it was the other way around, and the Republicans won the debate, such as it was. Some 65 percent of Americans now believe either that the earth is not warming (nearly 50 percent of them) or else that human activity is not part of the cause. President Obama's timid efforts in 2009 to enact some climate-change and energy-conservation legislation fell flat even when he enjoyed Democratic control of both houses. Arkansas's entire congressional delegation, except for Vic Snyder, joined the Republicans and the carbon-fuel industries in voting that climate issues were not urgent enough to do anything, not soon anyway.
Whatever they may mean scientifically, two blistering years have not changed the political dynamics a whit. The drive to block the Environmental Protection Agency from adopting and enforcing rules on carbon dioxide emissions, which the U.S. Supreme Court said it was obliged to do by the Clean Air Act, has picked up steam rather than dying in the heat. The new Republicans in the Arkansas delegation voted this summer to eviscerate the agency's budget to stop the regulation of greenhouse gases.
Blanche Lincoln, who had joined with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to block the EPA from trying to regulate greenhouse gases before her crushing defeat in her re-election bid for the Senate last year, now is a big-energy hire. Using a new forum for the National Federation of Independent Business, she denounced the EPA this month for trying to impose new regulations on business when it should be removing them. They will cost jobs, she said. Whatever side you are on with any issue, you cite jobs. Environmental strides have consistently created jobs, not abolished them.
At the state level, the government, except for the courts, is still greasing the way for utilities to build a mighty coal-burning plant at McNab, which will spew 6 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when it goes on line, in addition to the 30 million tons already emitted by Arkansas's aging coal plants. And the new generation isn't needed.
The rising stars in the political firmament are Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Rick Perry, who trumpet attacks on scientists for trying to scare Americans into tying the hands of business still more with this climate stuff. Bachmann sometimes actually denies that warming is occurring.
Perry doesn't deny global warming but says everyone has pretty much concluded that it is not caused by human factors but by natural phenomenon. There is scientific disagreement about the magnitude of greenhouse gases' contribution to warming but not about its existence. Perry put his theory that the warming is a natural phenomenon, evidence of God's hand, to the test in July when he called on Texans to join him in praying that God stay his hand. The prayers went unanswered.
Jon Huntsman, the odd man in the Republican presidential derby, warned this week that Republicans would regret it if they followed those like Perry and Bachmann who repudiate science by denying evolution and manmade warming. Yes, but only if their grandchildren are Republicans.