The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its annual report warning of shrinking timelines in which to slow global warming before crucial and irreversible tipping points are reached. . If the United States and the global community fail to aggressively shift from fossil fuels to green, renewable energy, Earth will become increasingly uninhabitable.
The current reliance on petro-dictatorships, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, compounded by rising prices from domestic suppliers in the country, also affects national security. The absence of bold leadership ensures worsening periods of extreme heat, devastating floods, droughts, rising seas, worsening storms, famine, disease, forest death and ocean acidification. Increased exposure to wildfires and diseases associated with atmospheric carbon emissions and other pollutants, primarily lung and heart, will also be the social cost of a rapidly warming planet.
Economists estimate that continued delays and nibbling at the edges of the problem will mean $100 trillion in lost economic activity worldwide by the end of the century, impoverishing countless millions and displacing so many in Latin America, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa by mid-century. refugee problems will seem minimal.
Noam Chomsky is generally hailed among the world’s most important intellectuals. His recent assessment that we have reached “the most dangerous point in human history” (at least since the multiple migrations out of Africa 120,000 years ago) is widely shared. Old enough to have lived through the fall of Barcelona (1939) and Hitler’s rise with the Third Reich, Chomsky possesses the experiential wisdom and scientific influence to speak convincingly about existential threats. Everyone should listen.
Naturally, climate change has been at the center of his concerns in recent years, particularly the inextricable link between global warming and capitalism, the deadly consequences of which are becoming apparent every day, even to the obtuse. Today, 40 years behind in the response to the problem, the biosphere may be unrecoverable given the carbon emissions cuts needed and the protracted lead times capitalist countries may take to achieve them.
Adding to Donald Trump’s infamy, Chomsky recently condemned the destructive and short-sighted policies of the former administration. By “maximizing” fossil fuels and reducing regulations to mitigate climate change, the renowned linguist and social critic concludes that no one in history other than Trump “has done more to drive the human race to extinction”. Trump had his GOP enablers and enablers, of course, not to mention the bigoted bigots backing him, which Chomsky compares to the Nuremberg rallies of the 1930s. Given the dangers of climate change, the looming possibilities of nuclear war, contagion widespread and ever-increasing number of refugees, what can we do about American policy to weed out the foolish and the unbelievers from its ranks?
A partial solution is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), a longstanding mainstay in Europe and rapidly gaining traction in Maine and other states and cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. A possible compensation for gerrymandering, RCV ballots allow voters to rank candidates according to their preferences. A typical congressional election in Connecticut, for example, has 4 ballot candidates, usually a Green, Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian or Independent. Using RCV, the first, second, third, and fourth choice candidates are selected by voters. If no candidate wins a majority of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and that individual’s voters have their second choice counted as a first. The process continues until a candidate obtains a majority of support. Low-percentage pluralities, which normally decide US elections and disappoint large swathes of voters, are eliminated. Most voters are confident that their first or second choice for office represents them, and majority rule is maintained.
Democracies are stronger when more voices, parties and visions of the future expand choice. RCV eradicates the “spoiler” myth, where candidates are marginalized or forced to stay out of the races to avoid splitting votes with like-minded candidates, perhaps less qualified, but larger war chests and major parties. RCV also eliminates the need for preliminary and second-round elections. In this context, RCV allows jurisdictions to save money by combining the benefits of multiple rounds of voting into a single, more representative, high-turnout election (aka an “instant second round”). By eradicating pretexts for so-called strategic voting, RCV promotes thoughtful representation of a diversity of political viewpoints rather than single, converging, bipartisan monoliths on major issues such as military spending and interventionism. Voters should support the candidates they actually want to elect and not feel pressured to choose a “lesser of two evils” because the media calls their favorite candidate, no matter how exceptional, a dark horse. Additionally, as a possible remedy for America’s political divisions, RCV encourages civil campaigning by discouraging negative advertising, slander, and toxic and polarizing campaigning. RCV forces candidates to talk about issues rather than attack an ideological opposite in the race, which can benefit other candidates more than themselves.
Another way to improve the caliber of candidates is just as simple: remove religion from the criteria used to judge them. Twenty years ago, evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins gave a wonderful TED Talk. He wittily criticized America’s hostility, at least outside scientific circles, to Charles Darwin’s principle of natural selection. Elsewhere in the world, evolution is taken for granted. Failure to do so here is a national embarrassment. Dawkins attributes this to creationists who, lacking any coherent scientific basis for their attacks, fall back on popular American phobias against atheists and agnostics, predilections that politicians invariably exploit.
George HW Bush, for example, in a very bigoted ploy to lure conservative voters into both major parties once declared atheists “unpatriotic.” Thomas Jefferson (probably a deist but certainly a patriot) said, “In every country and in every age the priest has been hostile to liberty. So why pander to religious groups? In addition to intense lobbying and campaign money, religions teach voters to be content with “non-trivial and supernatural explanations about the world”, blinding them to the wonderfully parsimonious and real explanations provided by science. In backward America, authority, revelation, and faith always trump insistence on hard evidence and facts. Still, lay people, including atheists and agnostics, make up our second largest “religious” identification group, more than 33 million American adults. Although they outnumber all other non-Christian religious affiliations combined, atheists and agnostics, due to their non-denominational status, are relegated to pseudo-citizenship in this country, being generally ineligible. This secular, rational and non-religious vote could be powerful if it were mobilized. Yet no one in Congress or the Supreme Court, let alone state or federal executive offices, publicly identifies as an agnostic or atheist.
Does relegating non-believers to political oblivion weaken the pool of candidates? Dawkins cited dozens of surveys and studies conducted since the 1920s looking for negative or positive correlations between levels of education and intelligence with religious beliefs. All but 4 showed a reverse correlation. The other 4 showed no correlation, one way or the other. In other words, the lower the level of education and intelligence, the greater the religiosity. Dawkins also referenced a more in-depth analysis of America’s top scientists conducted by EJ Larson and L. Witham in 1998. Among this elite sampling, belief in a personal god was 7%, 7.5% for physicists ; 5% for biologists. It presents what Dawkins called “a grotesque disconnect between the American intelligentsia and the American electorate”.
The consensus understanding of the nature of the universe, held by our most knowledgeable citizens (that is, scientists and other scholars), is so abhorrent to millions of American voters that no one seeking office policy does not risk asserting it publicly. Either they don’t accept the overwhelming evidence against supernatural explanations of the origins, teleology, and diversity of life, or they lie about having such theological beliefs to gain support. The odds of succeeding in American politics are therefore weighted by any candidate “who is both smart and honest.” Given the gravity of the global and national challenges we face today, this is too shallow a well from which to draw strong leadership. It’s time for atheists and agnostics to have the same political opportunities as those who crave support through non-existent invisible means.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, environmentalist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.