In early June I got an inquiry from Paul Gessing of conservative nonprofit the Rio Grande Foundation. He wanted to know: Would I be willing to go head-to-head against global warming skeptic Pat Michaels about manmade climate change on KKOB? I was intrigued. I have often envied the apparent ease with which the Rio Grande Foundation manages to access the editorial pages of the morning paper. His nonprofit’s brand of libertarian-laced neoconservatism garners ungodly amounts of print in a paper that treats progressive voices like venereal disease carriers: We’ll admit one to our pages occasionally, but they damn well better sit apart and not touch anything of value.Gessing noted that he’d first invited the Sierra Club and then the Conservation Voters of New Mexico but hadn’t heard back from either of them. Time was growing short, so I was the alternative.I have to admit I know far less about the issue than any true conservationist worth his or her salt, but I love to debate. This seemed a good opportunity to do some groundwork on a topic on which, as a legislator, I ought to be conversant. Many policy decisions hinge on this issue. If the warming of the Earth’s climate is due to human activity, what (if anything) can we do about it?A week later I got the word from Gessing: Tag, you’re it. Be at the studios on Wednesday at 9 a.m. Michaels—the pre-eminent scoffer at global warming—would be waiting for me. So would Bob Clark, the morning drive-time guy at KKOB. It would last for one hour. Calls would be taken. “The Rush Limbaugh Show” would follow.I only listen to KKOB during football and basketball games as I am a lifelong, bleeding Lobo through and through. My addiction requires I turn the AM dial to 770. Twenty-five years ago I’d called the station up in a white rage the day it changed its format to right-wing talk. I sputtered to the poor receptionist that “if they don’t get rid of this Limbaugh ignoramus, I’ll never listen again.” That threat was ignored; their ratings soared. Now, a full generation later, I entered the belly of the beast itself, debating with a man who makes many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year barnstorming the country debating precisely this topic with local stalwarts foolish enough to accept the challenge.So what was I doing?First, I was intensely curious about Michaels’ position and wondered if I’d be able to respond to his arguments. Also, I am very worried about whether the planet will be sustainable when we pass it on to the next generation. And I am frustrated at how little the man in the street seems to share this worry. Maybe I could raise the alarm level a notch.Once we were on the air, it took a while, but I realized Michaels is not so much a climate contrarian as he is yet one more in the long line of itinerant apostles of free-market dogma to come lurching down the lane at the behest of big oil. Essentially his argument was simple: The world is undeniably getting warmer—but in a predictable, linear trajectory. Since in the past century the average surface temperature has only gone up one degree, if it only goes up one more degree in the next century (his prediction), we shouldn’t have much to worry about. Thus the absolute worst thing for us to do would be to impose a whole bunch of panicky governmental regulations on the operations of the beautiful machine that is the free market.Of course the world of fossil fuel is not a smoothly operating free market machine. It’s a Rube Goldberg contraption of cartels, production quotas, Middle East warfare, governmental subsidies and tax breaks, and commodity futures manipulators.Essentially, Michaels wants us to take a huge gamble and do nothing. Let the chaos unravel unimpeded. The safer course, I argued, was the one I was counseling: set and follow rigorous petroleum consumption goals while upping the ante on alternative fuel development. If I’m wrong and we act prematurely, the worst that happens is we stretch out our finite supply of oil, a commodity far too valuable (plastics, fabrics, pharmaceuticals) to simply burn up in car engines. But if Michaels is wrong and we do nothing, we run the risk of widespread catastrophe. If he’s wrong but we act decisively, we will have spurred the development of new energy sources and technologies, a definite win/win scenario.However, Michaels is not traveling the country promoting his views in order to win converts. His goal is something far simpler: to sow confusion. He is financed by big oil to create the impression in the public’s mind (scientists know better) that there are “two schools of thought” on global warming—each equally valid. So we shouldn’t act until complete agreement is reached. If that had been our policy about tobacco’s dangers we’d never have turned the corner. The consequences of global warming are too ominous to fall for the “truth must be somewhere in the middle” argument ginned up by this immensely profitable industry. Enough with the smoke screens. We need to act before it’s too late.
Jerry Ortiz y Pino is a retired social worker, community activist and college instructor. He is in his second term as the Democratic state senator for District 12 in the New Mexico Legislature. Email email@example.comThe opinions expressed are solely those of the author.