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Is Jay Fisette Correct to Compare to Columbia Pike Streetcar Opposition to Climate Science Denial?


Over at ArlNow, Arlington’s Democratic politicians are busy struggling to figure out what happened on Tuesday, with Republican/”Independent” John Vihstadt not just defeating, but crushing by 12 points, Democrat Alan Howze for County Board. As ArlNow noted, what made this outcome so stunning was that Vihstadt “became the first non-Democrat elected to the County Board since 1983… winning 39 out of 52 Arlington precincts, even though every one of those precincts chose Sen. Mark Warner (D).”

So, something clearly went badly, even horribly, wrong for Arlington Democrats on Tuesday. But what exactly? Most people are pointing fingers at two things: 1) the apparently unpopular Columbia Pike streetcar project, opposition to which Vihstadt made a centerpiece of his campaign (while Howze supported it); and 2) hostility towards the County Board majority (Democrats Jay Fisette, Walter Tejada, Mary Hynes), due to a perception that they haven’t been listening and/or respecting people’s wishes on the streetcar and other projects; that they have not been spending money wisely; etc.

So, what message did Arlington County Board Democrats take from Tuesday’s debacle (which they apparently didn’t expect, even as some of us – ahem, Ben Tribbett and me, for instance – have been warning for months that this could happen)? One reaction that’s stirring up a s***-storm at ArlNow — 250 comments and counting so far – comes from Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette, a strong streetcar supporter (along with his fellow board members Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada, both of whom are up for reelection in 2015).

“I think there has been a lot of focus in the last year on that issue,” Fisette said after the ADCDC meeting. “This community has such a history of being thoughtful and policy-oriented … Here on this issue, what has been created and what we see at the moment is a lack of even agreement on some fundamental core facts about the issue.

“It’s almost like climate change,” Fisette continued. “Is it based on science that it’s true, or is it not?”

The reaction to that comment at ArlNow has been, basically, outrage, with the top-rated comment pretty much summing it up: “Did Fisette just compare streetcar skeptics to climate change deniers? Really? Wow.”

So, outrage aside, was Jay Fisette correct to compare Columbia Pike streetcar project opposition to climate science denial?

Short answer: IMHO, no. Longer answer: IMHO, no, for a variety of reasons.

First off, let’s just stipulate that global warming is an issue that’s about 1 gazillion (that’s a 1 followed by a gazillion zeroes!) times more important than the Columbia Pike streetcar project, or just about any other issue frankly. Why? Because global warming poses the only truly existential threat to life on this planet and civilization as we know it, short of full-scale thermonuclear war or a massive asteroid slamming into Earth. So…just like you don’t want to violate “Godwin’s Law” by comparing contemporary problems to Hitler or the Nazis, you probably also shouldn’t really be comparing basically inconsequential (in the grand scheme of things) issues like the Columbia Pike streetcar with the enormous, existential, planet-wide threat of global warming. Just saying…

Second, the fact is that climate science is one of the most widely-studied, theoretically-sound, data-supported, rock-solid realities on this fine planet of ours. I mean, basically, if climate science isn’t true, then we might as well toss out evolution; gravity; viruses and bacteria causing disease; water freezing at 32 degrees Fahrenheit; and the earth revolving around the sun while we’re at it. There’s just no doubt about it; the only questions are how bad it will be, how fast it will unfold, what to do about it, stuff like that.

In stark contrast, while there are certainly facts behind the Columbia Pike streetcar project – such as where it will run and how it will be funded – other than that there’s a lot in dispute, a lot that’s more opinion than anything else, a lot that we can take guesses at (e.g., the return on investment to this specific project) but don’t really “know” in the same way science works. For instance, will the streetcar bring in $3.2-$4.4 billion “in development over the next 30 years in Arlington and Fairfax counties, triple the amount that would be triggered by improving bus transit, according to a consultant’s study?” Or will it bring in a lot less than that, as streetcar opponents claim? Personally, as a streetcar supporter, I am strongly inclined towards the former estimate (plus, I have no particular reason to believe that the study which found billions of dollars in return on investment from this project is flawed), but that’s a far cry from the overwhelming evidence (CO2 readings in the atmosphere, changes in temperatures in the air and the oceans, rising sea levels, ice cap shrinkage, you name it) in support of climate science.

Next, as a political matter, let’s face it: calling someone a climate science denier is a highly unflattering thing to say, and in my view should be reserved for actual climate science deniers, who more than deserve the opprobrium for their idiocy, lunacy, etc. In the case of the Columbia Pike streetcar project, while I don’t agree with the opponents on almost anything, and while I question their repeated, false statements (e.g., that Bus Rapid Transit is possible on Columbia Pike despite the absence of a dedicated lane, which it most certainly is not), I’m not sure how essentially equating them to climate science deniers is either going to win them over or prevent them from being even ANGRIER at County Board supporters like Jay Fisette, Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada.

Finally, also as a political matter, I’m not at all convinced that repeatedly telling your constituents – many of whom are from your own political party – that they are “misinformed” is the best way to win them over. Yes, I agree that John Vihstadt et al. have used inflammatory, even demagogic language on the streetcar and other issues (“Gold-plated aquatic center?” Seriously? It’s really plated in gold? Whatever.). And I agree that streetcar supporters should keep putting the facts out there. But ultimately, if voters are rejecting what you’re saying – which they have now clearly done, resoundingly, two elections in a row – perhaps it’s time to ask deeper questions?

For instance, why is it that Arlington voters appear to have lost confidence in the County Board? What’s fueling all the mistrust and even anger at the Board? Why do so many people keep saying that these folks are “arrogant,” “insular,” “non-communicative,” “aloof,” etc? Are there things the Board should be doing differently (other than calling their opponents climate science deniers, that is – heh)? And perhaps really cutting to the chase: with elections for two of Jay Fisette’s County Board allies slated for next year, is this type of rhetoric helpful politically, or for that matter substantively, in terms of getting the desired outcome (in this case, from Jay Fisette’s perspective, that would be helping reelect his allies Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada to the Board next year)? Just a few thoughts for a lazy, post-disastrous-election Saturday afternoon.


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