Reflections on the politics of climate change

The science of climate change is clear. Scientists know that the Earth is warming and that humans are the reason. We also know that the Earth will continue to warm in the future; however, we can do something about it. We can dramatically change the trajectory.

If the science is so clear, why are there still so many people that don’t accept it? Why are there so many people who try to deny the evidence? Well, the why is something I will try handling in my next post. Here, I want to describe where things are, as I see them. Mind you, this is only my perspective, living in the USA, working on climate science and climate communication on a daily basis.

For various reasons, acceptance of climate science breaks down along ideological lines. First, a majority of people in every state in the US believes, for instance, that the Paris Accord is a good thing, that the USA should participate. It turns out, however, that there is higher acceptance of climate science and acceptance of the importance of action on the coasts (California, Oregon, Washington, New York, etc.). 

There are exceptions to this rule but I am generalizing. It also turns out that the more liberal your politics are, the more likely you are to accept the science and the solutions. With respect to politics, the results are stunning. Vast majorities of Democratic and independent voters are supportive. Interestingly, small majorities of even conservative Republicans are supportive.

There are other correlations. For instance, the more religious, particularly conservatively religious someone is, the more likely they are to doubt or deny the science. But again, this is a generalization and it has exceptions. In fact, some religious leaders have become climate-action leaders. Perhaps the best example is Pope Francis. Now, I am not saying that conservatives are not as intelligent as liberals, I am just pointing out that certain political and religious ideologies correspond to viewpoints on science.

The correlations don’t end here. A hugely important work on the underlying motivations of people who deny the reality of climate change was performed by Dr. Naomi Oreskes in her book (and accompanying movie) Merchants of Doubt. One of her central conclusions is that the denial of human-caused climate change is driven by peoples’ distrust of the government and of government solutions to a problem, particularly when the solutions may impinge on personal freedoms. 

While there is a clear relation between a scientist’s knowledge of climate change and their understanding of the human influence, such a relation is not apparent in the general public. So, if you look far and wide to find a scientist who claims humans are not a major influence on climate, it is very likely that scientist is not very knowledgeable about the topic, does not work in the area very much, or has a history of faulty research. 

Conversely, the scientists who accept the consensus view are more likely to publish more, do more research and just know more. However, if you talk to people on the street, this view breaks down. I see this in my own interactions with people. I often run across general audience members who have a pretty good grasp of the science but they discount the effects. Or, people who know very little about the science but they fully accept it. What is most astonishing to me is where this all leaves us. Donald Trump has announced that America will withdraw from the Paris climate treaty. My view is, it would be better for us to leave the agreement so we cannot sabotage it from the inside. But, only time will tell.

But back to where this leaves us. We have a situation in the USA and around the world where certain countries and certain political groups have inextricably aligned themselves with one or another side of this issue. For instance, in the USA, denial of human-caused climate change has become a litmus test for Republican candidates. The same is true in other countries. This is a real tragedy because Republicans don’t want to pollute the planet. They don’t want to screw things up for our future generations. But, their wholesale denial of the reality of climate change is doing just that.

From a political standpoint, if we think about the silly things President Trump is doing and how it will affect the world, the one thing he may be most remembered for is his climate inaction. Climate change will have very long lasting consequences that we will be dealing with long after he is gone. Long after other issues like immigration, the economy, debt, jobs, terrorism, or new words like “covfefe” have passed from our minds, the implications of our climate effect will linger. Frankly, no challenge we are facing (except perhaps a potential nuclear war) presents the consequences that climate change does. 

And this, sadly, will be the legacy of conservatives in my country. As we wake up to more severe weather, more droughts, heat waves, rising seas, severe storms, the world will remember that these issues could have been solved long ago but for an ideology and tribalism. It will be the job of scientists, historians, and the media to continually remind people of this. Climate change could have been solved. Those who will be blamed will certainly claim “But I didn’t cause this climate change. You cannot blame this on me!” But we can and we have to. People need to be accountable for their actions. If you are someone who has stood in the path of climate action, you own the results.

Click here to read the rest

Posted by John Abraham on Friday, 2 June, 2017

Creative Commons License The Skeptical Science website by Skeptical Science is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.