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Armadillos, Republicans and John Stossel

Published on -8/20/2013, 9:59 AM

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Coming back from Wichita a few days ago, I saw a dead armadillo on the road about 20 miles south of Salina. My first thought: "Armadillos are smarter than Republicans." Then, mentally taking note the armadillo was dead on the roadway, I added another thought to the first: "At least about climate change."

I grew up in west Texas, where armadillos are fairly common. It was an article of faith with me that Yankee states are just too cold for armadillos. I've lived in Kansas for 40 years, 30 of them in Hays. In all the trips back to Texas in all those years, I never saw armadillos in this state until, about 15 years ago, I started seeing their bodies along the road in southern Kansas. One afternoon, I counted six of them in the stretch between Fredonia and Cherokee. My first winter in Kansas, age 23, I saw more snow, by a couple of feet, than I had seen in my entire Texas life, more even than my seventh-grade winter, which was spent in Cortez, Colo.

I was pretty pleased with myself when I saw the armadillo over by Salina. "Armadillos are smarter than Republicans." Hyuk hyuk.

A couple days later, John Stossel showed up on the editorial page. His topic was "Global Warming: The Hoax." The angle was debunking the idea hurricanes are worse now because of a warming climate.

Honest, my first thought was not, "Armadillos are smarter than John Stossel." Sure, he was engaging in doctrinaire straw-man argument. Set up a ridiculous case almost nobody with any sense believes, pretend almost every opponent believes it, then knock down the argument and claim victory. Hardly any of us believers in the science of climate change think such a monumental phenomenon can be proved by any individual storm, or even a decade's worth of them. But it is pretty standard Fox News technique. It's Stossel. What do you expect?

Through the first third of his piece, I was actually thinking that Stossel is somewhat behind the times. More and more these days, the argument from the right wing of climate science is not that climate is not changing, but that a warmer climate is going to be absolutely awesome -- more corn, more wheat, more trees, less freezing cold. Party like the Midwest is Hawaii, only without an ocean.

Stossel eventually came to Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,800 people in 2005. He compared it to the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane, which killed 10,000 people. Galveston, hands down, was worse. See? Global warming is bunk. "We just didn't have so much media then," Stossel says.

At that point, I thought, "Armadillos are smarter than John Stossel." Remembering the deadness of the armadillo, I added, "At least about climate change."

As soon as I had time, I researched armadillos. Imagine my chagrin at finding most sources attribute their northward migration to things such as pumped-out rivers are easier to cross, fewer brush fires means more food sources and escaped pets colonize easily in a variety of habitats. A couple of sources did say the cause is primarily climate change, but they did not seem reliable.

So I had to reconsider. Could John Stossel be smarter than an armadillo, on climate change as on crossing streets? I went back to his column. I considered he quoted an actual climate scientist, rare in Fox world. I considered he acknowledged that climate may warm, and the hypothetical warming could, hypothetically, be caused by man. I considered it is not a bad idea, generally speaking, to be skeptical of the benevolence and efficacy of government.

I considered his climatologist works at a political institute. I considered his acknowledgement of the possibility of climate change served mainly to set up an argument that appeared to be this: Even if global warming is real, the government can't fix it, so why do anything?

I considered most of the climate science that "debunks" global warming comes from right-wing think tanks such as Cato or from institutes largely funded by the oil, gas and coal industries, and whose purpose is not advancing research, but promoting a political or commercial agenda. I considered a National Academy of Science poll of more than 1,300 climate scientists found that 97 percent of them had been persuaded by the body of research that global warming is real and is overwhelmingly caused by man.

I considered another thing we didn't have in 1900, besides an overabundance of media, was weather radar and satellites. I'm pretty sure most of those 10,000 dead Galvestonians would have gotten out of the way if they had known what was coming.

Once upon a time, I read an article about the startle reflex of armadillos -- their instinctive reaction to danger. For armadillos, the reflex is a vertical leap of 2 to 4 feet. They are very low-slung, low-profile animals and, except for this vertical leap, most cars and trucks would pass right over them.

I considered that, if climate science were a truck, Stossel would be an armadillo. His instincts and predilections take him right up into the undercarriage.

So, out of all this reconsideration, I have to acknowledge: On climate change, armadillos maybe aren't smarter than John Stossel.

Or Republicans.

Kurt Beyers, Hays, works in public relations at Fort Hays State University.

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