Science & Technology

Heads Up!

Both the right and the left are predicting death from above


Chicken Little is making a comeback, and this time she's a bipartisan doomsayer. These days, both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are warning of death from above.

Democrats look at the recent global warming report from the National Research Council and say that if we don't sign on the Kyoto Protocol's dotted line, Eskimos will soon be roasting marshmallows on the smoldering blubber of incinerated seals. At the same time, they say that any proposal to build a missile shield is based on flawed science and will surely lead to dangerously low levels of domestic spending.

Republicans make a reverse sky-is-falling argument. Any delay, they say, in building a defense shield will invite a military holocaust. As for global warming, they argue that there really isn't a problem at all, and that adhering to Kyoto would throw such a monkey wrench in the economy that roasting marshmallows in the Arctic would be about the best job anyone could expect.

Here's the rundown. The NRC warming report says that, "The [temperature] changes observed over the last several decades are likely because of human activities…" That's all liberals needed to hear. They have attacked Bush for backing away from the Kyoto agreement that would have forced the U.S. to slash carbon dioxide emissions. In a June 12 editorial, the Washington Post calls for action even while admitting that the report was less than definitive. "The problem is so potentially serious, and potentially so difficult to reverse, that the responsible course is to begin implementing change even as study continues." It warned that Bush faces stern rebukes from the Europeans who support emission caps.

Conservatives have cried that the scientific consensus is an illusion. On the House floor this Tuesday, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), summed up the opposition to the global warming crowd. Relying on the same NRC report, he called global warming an "anti-truth." He said "the middle class in America will be crushed" if we implemented Kyoto. The Washington Times continually refers to the 95-0 Senate vote in 1997 that warned against Kyoto if it would harm the U.S. economy. All around D.C., right-wingers note that none of the supposedly progressive European nations riding Bush for his approach ratified Kyoto either. When it comes to global warming, say conservatives, the sky isn't falling.

That's not to say they are unconcerned about death from above. In fact, they're positively terrified that tyrants in rogue nations might rain down nukes on the world's only remaining superpower. They also worry that missiles in the former Soviet Union might launch by mistake. While conservatives tend to think government stinks at administering complex programs on terra firma such as Medicare and Social security, they have enormous faith that the feds can solve any and all technical issues surrounding a missile defense shield. What's more, they argue that the same government that routinely pads its spending with fraud and bloat will deliver missile defense relatively cheaply, especially if we start by simply modifying systems we currently use to defend navy ships against attacks. Star Wars will come later. No word yet on what it all might cost. Besides, what's a few billion dollars when the alternative is an Iraqi H-bomb in Manhattan, right?

What reckless arrogance! cried liberals at a hot and humid press conference in the shadow of the Capitol this Tuesday. Sponsored by the Nuclear Disarmament Partnership, it included Princeton scientist Frank von Hippel, who said the shield could never work. Peter Wilk, former president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, argued that the inevitable arms race that would ensue would be a threat to "public health." Seven congressional Democrats, including Reps. Barney Frank ( D-Mass.) and Tom Allen (D-Maine), were on hand as well, each warning that the money spent on a shield would never result in one iota of security, that it would bleed social programs dry, and that our European allies would be hopelessly offended by our unilateral actions.

So how will it all pan out? In the nursery rhyme, the wise old king shows Chicken Little and her cronies that there really isn't anything to worry about. Then again, I don't remember anything in the story about the king being blasted with political pressure from both sides of the aisle. Bush will probably settle for compromises on both global warming fixes and missile defense. That's what he's already done with the tax cut and he looks ready to do the same with education, privatizing Social Security, health care reform.

Still, I am sticking with the wise old king's advice. I am going to head for home and relax. I plan to use my forthcoming $300 tax rebate as a pillow, safe in the knowledge that at least that chunk of change won't be spent pursuing either an end to global warming or an end to the threat of nuclear annihilation. And I'll need the rest and relaxation: Whatever I do spend my rebate on will probably contribute to global warming, which will inevitably lead to strained international relations with rogue-nation tyrants, who will unleash nuclear death from above on my defenseless little head.