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The Republican Reaction to the Polar Vortex Explains Why So Many Scientists Are Democrats

Alex Wong/Getty

When I walked to work Tuesday morning, it was 4 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest temperature I've experienced in the last two years living in Washington, D.C. The cold snap has sparked the inevitable snow trolling—that this weather somehow disproves climate change's existence—from A-list conservative commentators like Matt DrudgeErick Erickson and the usual stable of Fox pundits. This is only a rawer form of the climate-change denial that is now party dogma, comporting with, for starters, the party's 2012 presidential candidate and the entire Republican membership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. They are, of course, completely wrong. But this kind of Lysenkoist behavior isn't just wrong; it has catastrophically discredited the party among scientists.

The Republican position here, at least as outlined by its loudest and most influential members, seems to be this: The theory of global warming predicts that everywhere will be hot all the time. Therefore, the continued existence of cold things disproves the theory. Donald Trump tweeted, "We are experiencing the coldest weather in more than two decades-most people never remember anything like this. GLOBAL WARMING anyone?" Some guy at Red State gloated over the fate of the climate research vessel Akademic Sholkalskiy, and Rush Limbaugh joined in with similar thoughts:

It's an abject, total fraud. Well, obviously there is no melting of ice going on at the North Pole. If they're gonna tell us the polar vortex is responsible for this cold, that means record cold is also happening in the North Pole, which means there isn't any ice melting, and we know about the global warming expedition that went down to the South Pole, Antarctica, to prove that the ice is melting.

It's almost impossible to overstate how blisteringly ignorant this sounds to a scientist. The argument, if it can be dignified as such, is 100 percent straw man. As far as the Akademic Sholkalskiy is concerned, the vessel's mission was general climate research, not to disprove the existence of sea ice (we use satellites for that kind of measurement, cause the Earth is real big), and the International Panel on Climate Change never predicted that all sea ice would be gone forever. The vessel was trapped by weather-shifted pack ice, not unseasonable overall ice coverage. And while it is true that (unlike in the Arctic) Antarctic sea ice has been growing, for a variety of reasons, Antarctic land ice, which is what matters for sea level rise, is melting fast.

And contra Limbaugh, as Climate Central's Andrew Freeman details, there is a strong case that even the current cold snap in the U.S. can be laid at the doorstep of climate change. Climate models predict that typical wind patterns will be disrupted, and that's exactly what is causing freezing Arctic air to pour across North America. Meanwhile, the Arctic itself is correspondingly much warmer than average—on Tuesday much of Alaska was warmer than Atlanta and Mobile.

But the most elementary subtleties of reasoning are lost on many Republicans, who descend into anti-intellectual capering at the slightest provocation. Surely this is part of what accounts for the yawning partisan affiliation gap among scientists. A 2009 Pew poll found that 55 percent of scientists identified as Democrat, and just 6 percent as Republican.

These days, top Republicans are constantly yowling about things—from climate change to evolution—that aren't just controversial, but preposterous. Even a scientifically informed business person might be able to look past that stuff, but such beliefs are radioactive in the scientific community. What's more, the GOP won't allow within its ranks anything less than angry denials of settled scientific consensus—admit climate change is real, and you'll be frog-marched out of office. By contrast, the Democrats have a few scientifically challenged loons (vaccine deniers and GMO paranoiacs come to mind), but they don't suffuse the party.

Democrats no doubt benefit in the long run from the GOP's denialism, but it's a shame nonetheless. Ideally, both parties would agree upon an empirical reality, allowing a policy debate over values and priorities, not inconvenient facts. Some have predicted that a new generation of GOP leaders like Chris Christie will finally take on the party's willful ignorance of climate change, but there's little sign of that. And until then, scientists will keep supporting one side overwhelmingly.