Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

Climate Change Can be Edited Out--Just Ask Rick Perry

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the Republican presidential debate airing on CNN, October 18, 2011 in Las Vegas | Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Last week marked quite a seven-day run for Texas Governor Rick Perry. At its start, during yet another Republican Party debate, the current darling of the Christian hard right announced to a credulous audience that the American Revolution erupted in the 16th-century; that he was off by a mere 200 years--well, what's history but something to finesse?

His wife Anita was just as willing to stretch the truth mid-week, when she tearfully compared her husband to Moses, convinced that he--and he alone--can lead the party to the Promised Land. "God was already speaking to me, but he [Rick] didn't want to hear it. I said you may not see that burning bush, but there are people seeing that burning bush for you."

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(Question: does it count if Rick did not see the bush himself? If so, was she suggesting that her spouse was a clueless Moses? A leader who must be led?)

Whatever, the Perrys' collective willingness to rewrite the past, to reconfigure its meaning--historically and symbolically--is of a piece with the presidential candidate's willful airbrushing of the present.

As you may know--or might have guessed--Gov. Perry does not believe in climate change; he has dismissed the scientific investigations that have confirmed its reality, has rejected the manifold evidence of its anthropogenic origins, and has denounced experts' warnings about its dire implications for human civilization. His tongue-tied defense, taken from the September 7 debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, goes like this:

Well, I do agree that there is -- the science is -- is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans' economy at -- at -- at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is just -- is nonsense. I mean, it -- I mean -- and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell.

It doesn't pay to parse his incoherent answer (except to say he completely missed the central point about who persecuted Galileo; it was done by theocrats who, like Perry, haunt the GOP).

Still, it is crucial to recognize that his denunciation of climate science is not just talk, however rambling. For at the end of last week the author of an official report on climate change's disturbing impact on the Texas Gulf Coast revealed that some of those Perry appointed to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)--knowing (and sharing) their boss' climate-change denials--had deleted some of his key scientific findings.

Galveston Bay

The backstory to this ham-handed incident is its only straightforward element. For the past decade, TCEQ has hired the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) to produce an annual State of the Bay report, a much-anticipated evaluation of the current status of Galveston Bay; these coastal waters support important fisheries and are a vital source of recreation and tourism. Assessing any changes to this marine and coastal environment is essential to the regional economy that these bays, wetlands, and estuaries sustain.

That objective is what has kicked up the current fuss, for one of the dramatic alterations that HARC analysts have tracked rigorously is the rise in the bay's water levels. Indeed, the 2010 report, which was submitted to TCEQ earlier this year, noted a demonstrable increase in those levels, and, more concerning still, an increase that is a lot faster than the long-term average would predict. Five times faster.

This accelerated rate of change, according to the report's author, John B. Anderson, who has a distinguished career analyzing the impact of climate change on the Antarctic, is the result of human-generated global warming: as the planet has warmed, melting polar ice and glaciers, the seas of necessity are rising. The Rice University oceanographer's mere mention of the link between our carbon-spewing actions and the resulting inundation of low-lying coastal features and the swamping of wetland habitat--consequences reported around the world--led TCEQ to censor the report.

The agency's political-appointee overseers struck out all references to the long-established connection between our expanding carbon footprint, a warming Earth, and the upwelling of sea-levels; they crossed out Anderson's predictions that the 3mm rise will continue for the foreseeable future; and they really did not like his clever insight that Galveston Bay was initially formed over 20,000 years ago when a very slow elevation occurred as the last ice age thawed, filling in what are now its fertile estuaries. Given this past, Anderson wrote, it "is ironic that its future will be strongly regulated by the now rising sea." That too was deep-sixed.

What could not be submerged was the incident itself. It has been widely reported because Anderson sent the heavily redacted version he received from TCEQ to Mother Jones, which promptly posted the Tracked Changes document (which you can read here).

John B. Anderson | Photo: Rice UniversityAs you click through the deletions, keep in mind that this amended text represents a brazen attempt to deny reality. You are bearing witness to a partisan assault on the scientific method--the only tool that may actually help us mitigate and adapt to the environmental changes already under way--and those to come. Professor Anderson's good-faith efforts have been ground up in Governor Perry's bad-faith politics.

Not that this scheme will hurt Perry within the Republican Party. As Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times reported on Sunday:, "the right wing of the Republican Party has managed to turn skepticism about man-made global warming into a requirement for electability, forming an unlikely triad with antiabortion and gun-rights beliefs. In findings from a Pew poll this spring, 75 percent of staunch conservatives, 63 percent of libertarians and 55 percent of Main Street Republicans said there was no solid evidence of global warming." Perry is simply appealing to his base.

Yet this very narrow-mindedness puts the Texas governor-presidential candidate at odds with the prophetic figure his wife believes him to be: we still talk about Moses because he bucked the crowd, rebuking them for their shallow materialism, stiff-necked self-regard, and idolatrous embrace of the Golden Calf.

Perry has no such sense of righteous conviction, no far-reaching vision for how humans will best live in the future. If he had, he would have seen the latest study of climate change in Texas for what it is--the burning bush of our times.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

The photo of Galveston Bay is by Flickr user DrPantzo. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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