Scientists no longer command conservatives' respect

Last week's uncouth display by National Party MPs in Parliament revealed as much about its authors as its target, Dr Russel Norman.

It spoke of a political mindset quite unable to distinguish occasions when rowdy interjection is appropriate, from those when it most emphatically is not. More than that, however, it exposed an unwillingness - now alarmingly widespread among conservative politicians - to accept the findings of empirical science.

The Green Party's co-leader had risen to add his party's response to a parliamentary statement expressing New Zealanders' sympathy and support for the Filipino victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan.

In doing so, he drew heavily on the comments of Yeb Sano, a member of the Philippines delegation to the international conference on climate change in Warsaw.

Speaking to his fellow delegates just hours before, Sano had declared: "I speak for my delegation. But more than that, I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm . . . We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons are a way of life.

"Because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a fact of life. We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, having to count our dead, become a way of life. We simply refuse to."

Norman's intention in quoting extensively from Sano's speech was to draw his parliamentary colleagues' attention to the fact that Super-Typhoon Haiyan wasn't simply an Act of God but a terrifying example of what climate scientists call "anthropogenic global warming".

In other words, that it was a man-made disaster. And if the New Zealand Parliament was not to find itself expressing sorrow and support for the victims of climate change with ever-increasing frequency, then its members would have to respond to Sano's urgent plea for action.

Quoting a student hero of the Philippines' long and bloody struggle for democracy, Sano had challenged the Warsaw delegates: "If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?"

A more mature National Party would have listened to the quoted words of this Filipino scientist in respectful silence. Startled, perhaps, that a member of the House had moved beyond the platitudes that traditionally accompany such ritual expressions of sympathy, but willing, nevertheless, to at least try to understand why he was stepping beyond the norm.

But, because the words of scientists no longer command the respect of conservatives, the National Party members of the House (including at least one Cabinet minister) began braying like tethered asses for Norman to resume his seat.

Such incivility has, sadly, become reflexive on the Right of politics - especially when anyone attempts to engage its representatives in serious discussion about the consequences of anthropogenic global warming.

The contrast between these Tory "know-nothings" and "climate-change deniers" and the leading conservatives of 50 years ago is stark.

The Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik in October 1957 had so shocked the United States that the Eisenhower Administration felt it had no option but to defy the ingrained religious obscurantism of huge swathes of the American Right and embark on a campaign to place science and its myriad applications (not least its military spin-offs) at the centre of American life.

If science reigned to such obviously good effect in Red Russia, argued the president's advisers, then it must also rule in the Land of the Free.

The debt we owe the extraordinary era of scientific competition between the USSR and the USA is huge. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what the world of 2013 would look like had it never happened.

The vast expansion of scientific research and development did, however, bring with it an extremely worrying political problem. How to ensure that the revelations of science - the outcome of rational thought and disciplined experimentation - would be received by equally rational and disciplined politicians?

If the findings of science contradicted the deeply-held prejudices of politicians, then which of the two - the scientist or the politician - would be required to step back?

In a 2012 article for The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza quoted Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, from their book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: "One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier - ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

Following last week's uncouth display, it is clear that, when it comes to rational Right-wing responses to anthropogenic global warming, it's looking pretty bad here too.

The Press