Democracy and science have always had a somewhat unsteady relationship. In 1882, the Indiana state House passed a bill effectively revising the value of pi to 3.2 — a move that involved money, naturally.
Revaluing numbers proved to be an aberration. Legislative opposition to climate science has not.
Over the weekend, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the state of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Rick Scott (R) has (at least at times) barred employees from using the terms "climate change," "global warming" or "sustainability." The DEP denied that such a policy existed, but former employees told of verbal warnings against using the terms. "We were told that we were not allowed to discuss anything that was not a true fact," one employee told the CIR. The bar for what constitutes "true" and "fact" in that formulation remains unclear.
In 2012, the state of North Carolina attracted national attention when it decided to dissociate policy-making from estimates of future sea-level rise. Rising sea levels — a well-documented aspect of the changing climate that results from both melting ice and warming oceans — pose a particular threat to coastal states, for obvious reasons. Revised estimates of likely flooding from sea-level rise became an issue of national political contention in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as Congress continually punted on increasing flood insurance premiums on susceptible areas.
As the world continues to warm — a fact that's not significantly debated by scientists — sea levels will keep going up, and coastal houses that are insured by the government will keep flooding. The revisions to the insurance program sought to offset those expected costs with more revenue, given that the system needed an emergency infusion of funding after Sandy. But higher insurance premiums are not politically popular. Nor, one might assume, are the costs that North Carolina would bear if it moved to prepare for much-higher seas.
Just last month, the state of Wyoming undid one of its anti-climate-change measures. Gov. Matt Mead (R) signed a bill allowing the teaching of climate change in the state's schools. The curriculum had been banned by the state's legislature due to concerns about how it conflicts with Wyoming's huge fossil fuel industry. The state produces more coal than any other and is among the biggest producers of natural gas and oil — all of which have been linked to increases in warming gases in the atmosphere. Incidentally, Mead's signature doesn't mean the curriculum including climate change will be adopted by the Board of Education, only that it can be.
Those direct measures pale beside the much-more-prevalent opposition to climate science expressed by politicians. Scott, Florida's governor, has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the link between fossil fuel consumption and the warming climate, even as the "nuisance flooding" (as one former DEP staffer said it was to be called) from higher seas increases. The 2016 Republican field for president is overwhelmingly comprised of similar skeptics, reflecting opposition to climate science in the Republican Party's base.
The Obama administration has introduced a number of policies that address the concerns of climate scientists, such as limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and increasing automotive fuel efficiency. Those moves will almost certainly hinge on the 2016 elections; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) advised power producers in his state to slow-walk implementation of the new rules, in part to see what happens once President Obama is out of office.
What's alleged by Florida's former DEP employees is another step past that, of course, but the end result is the same. The window during which scientists say we can address climate change and avoid its worst effects is closing rapidly. But for elected officials, the next election is arriving even more quickly.