Why conservatives are like a broken record on climate change

Prompted by a recent and quite surreal debate with a friend of a friend on Facebook, I wanted to revisit the reasons why conservatives might be so obsessed with denying climate change is happening and that mankind is responsible.

The best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas come out.

Steve Stockman (R-Texas) on Twitter

It fits their outlook

Conservatives tend to have very individualistic world views: they’re anti-government, anti-welfare, pro-business, great believers in the idea that ‘we get what we deserve’. For this hierarchical and egocentric mindset, opposing climate change is as fundamental as opposing taxes or gun control. In conservative eyes, action to tackle the imminent threat of global warming is just another excuse for Big Government to poke its nose into the lives of the private citizen. To witness how deeply ingrained this attitude can be, consider this quote from Tea Party activist, Heather Gass:

One day (in 2035), you will wake up in subsidized government housing, eating government subsidized food, your kids will be whisked off by government buses to indoctrination training centers while you are working at your government assigned job on the bottom floor of your urban transit center village because you have no car and who knows where your ageing parents will be but by then it will be too late! WAKE UP!!!

Heather Gass, East Bay Tea Party

One could take issue with Ms. Gass’s comments on a number of different levels – rising inequality means millions of Americans are already dependent on the government subsidising their lives, even if they don’t even realise it.  But on the specifics of climate change, her ‘each to their own’ philosophy is all very well as we are dragged over over the cliff by collective neglect, but sadly, we all fall and crash together.

All they hear is fud

Even though 97% of scientists in peer reviewed journals accept human activity as the basis of climate change, right wing lobbyist and think tanks do everything possible to create the impression that the ‘science is not settled’. To that end, 87% of climate denial books are from authors employed or funded by right wing think tanks.

And sympathetic billionaires, through anonymous, difficult to trace ‘dark money’ donations to conservative foundations, have lavished funds on groups and authors committed to discrediting the science.  A 2014 study by sociologist Robert Brulle estimates that the climate change counter-movement is attracting $900 million per year in funding to support its efforts to cast doubts on the science.

It may be pure coincidence that between 2007 and 2011, the number of Americans believing that continued fossil fuel burning would damage the climate dropped from 71% to 44%. Or that in 2011, the three major US TV networks, NBC, ABC and CBS ran 14 stories on climate change, versus 149 in 2007.  This matters because the average lay person depends on the media to help understand the huge amount of climate related information presented to us, especially details regarding environmental risks, technologies and initiatives. And it is sadly true that debates about key scientific facts appear mostly in popular media platforms, where arguments and opinions make for good ratings, rather than scientific literature, thereby deceiving the public into thinking that the science is not settled.  It creates a false impression that two equivalent camps are disputing their respective positions, when in reality, in terms of the scientific credibility they possess, one side is effectively arguing that the earth is flat.

Maxwell Boykoff, a fellow in the Cooperative Institute for Research and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Boulder defines this as “climate contrarianism”.  It is not that these conservative advocates are unconvinced by the science as much as that they have an ideological or economical position to defend.  In reality, there is very little scientific dissent about the causes of anthropogenic warming but a huge amount of contrarianism with a vested interest in making it seem so.

For example, as Charles and David Koch question the fundamentals of whether the climate is changing or whether humans play a role in climate change – taking up outlier views far from those of relevant expert science communities on these issues – they can also be seen to align themselves with right-wing think tanks like Americans for Prosperity in order to protect their over $40 billion in oil and gas assets and interests that could face threats from climate-related regulations.

Consensus and Contrarianism in Climate Change
Maxwell Boykoff, Mètode, Science Studies Journal, January 2015

They have no choice

More profoundly, conservatives have to deny climate change because to admit that it’s happening would require them to accept that we need urgent and global solutions to address the problems. And those solutions open up a sink hole beneath their whole world view.

As Naomi Klein points out in her seminal book, “This Changes Everything”, tackling climate change will:

require international co-operation, government intervention to ban polluting industries and technologies, subsidies for renewable energy sources and emerging markets, new taxes, public works programs and where necessary the reversal of privatisations.

In other words, everything the right has been attacking for decades.

It also means a global redistribution of resources since America and Europe, as the first and longest polluters, have a moral obligation to take more of the burden for modifying their behaviour. It will require affluent Western countries in the Northern Hemisphere to make more compromises, which will undoubtedly redefine ‘our way of life’. This is the essence of the Marshall Plan for Earth proposed in 2009 by Angelica Navarro Llanos, then Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization.

Moreover, unless we can find viable clean transportation systems, we need to stop shipping “stuff” half way round the world to satisfy the insatiable demand of global free markets for profit growth.  We have to make a moral choice, realising that ‘our way of life’ and carrying on regardless imperils the lives of others who pay the price for the choices we make.  Again, this is not typically a conservative mindset or something that you will find in the unhinged fantasies of Ayn Rand.

If any civilisation is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.

Ayn Rand, ”Philosophy: Who Needs It”

Actually, the morality of altruism is now a pre-requisite for civilisation in its present form to continue. Some of the areas where altruistic policy can make a huge difference to tackling climate change, such as housing and public transport policy, do indeed help the poor more than the rich. Given that conservatism is often a luxury of affluence, the notion of having to give more to the ‘undeserving’ poor is guaranteed to cause outrage in right wing circles.

A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.

Naomi Klein, “This Changes Everything”

We are not the centre of the universe

From the point of view of the religious conservatives, tackling global warming is also an anathema because it contradicts the notion of humanity’s pre-eminence. Not masters of our dominion, chosen by God, but a species within a much greater ecosystem, a cosmos even, subordinate to secular, natural forces that do not care in the slightest about humanity and that far surpass our ability to control.

Wealthy and powerful people think that a little warming is no big deal. When Hurricane Katrina obliterated the beachfront house of Republican Senator, Trent Lott, then President George W Bush opined:

Out of the rubble of Trent Lott’s house – he’s lost his entire house – there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.

This was before Bush made any comment about the plight of tens of thousands of ordinary, mostly black American families, who pretty much lost everything during the disaster and who were floundering because the government agency responsible for managing disaster responses, FEMA, had been hollowed out by spending cuts.

So whilst the elites may be able to temporarily buy their way out of trouble during a disaster, this is not much comfort for the world’s poor. The right wing position is, therefore, morally repugnant since it demonises people, especially in areas most effected by climate (and thus, drought, famine, disease and war) for being in a situation they did nothing to create and over which they have no influence.

And in developed countries, the antipathy towards tackling climate change is the same disregard that motivates efforts to reduce welfare, carves out public services, bestows dismal employment rights, seeks to privatise education and imposes social segregation based on income, faith or race. Yet, as Sandy and Katrina show, it doesn’t take much for a First World country to creak at the seams. If catastrophic events like this happened every month, wealth or no wealth, we’d all be staring into the abyss and the inevitable breakdown of society.

It’s deeply ironic, therefore, that our ability to rebound from the increasingly violent disasters that occur is impeded because the same people who deny climate change are breaking down the ability of government and the state to respond effectively. Only government on the biggest and most visionary scale can relocate millions, build levees, transport resources to where they are most needed and, crucially, legislate rapid changes in certain kinds of energy use.

This is an irreconcilable dilemma for the right. If the free market is destroying the planet and if its values and behaviours are wrong, then it has lost the argument on how best to organise society.

In short, the conservative world view is obliterated. Greed is not good. Greed is actually killing us.

See Also:

One of the best summaries of why so many right wingers lose their marbles over this subject is the opening chapter of Naomi Klein’s superlative ‘This Changes Everything’. There, in a handful of pages, she pretty much destroys the intellectual scaffolding that holds together the conservative position on global warming.

Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk – Dan Kahan et al and the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School

“Covert Operations – The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama” – Jane Mayer ‘New Yorker’,  30th August 2010

Climate Change Denial Books and Conservative Think Tanks: Exploring The Connection “American Behavioural Scientist” 57 (2013), Brulle, R.J


Posted on

September 12, 2017