Even with the results still coming in, it already clear that the US elections have been a disaster for climate change. From the perspective of the psychology of denial, the elections contained two important lessons: one concerning the failures of the past, the other concerning the potential failures of the future.
The first is that the mass Republican rejection of climate science was entirely predictable and possibly avoidable. Annual polls conducted by the Pew Research Centre reveal a steady decline in belief in climate change among Republican voters – a process undoubtedly helped by an extremely adept misinformation campaign by libertarian think tanks. Back in 2007 nearly two thirds of Republican voters believed that there was clear evidence of climate change. By the following year, the proportion of believers fell below half for the first time.
This tipped the balance. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, climate change is actually a socially held belief like any other, that people adopt or reject according to the views of their peers and the people around them. Just as melting accelerates in the arctic, once believers became a minority there are powerful social feedbacks that diminish their influence further. People who accept the science start to keep their views to themselves. Those who are still unsure soon pick up the social cues that it is no longer appropriate for people like themselves to believe in climate change.
So the process accelerated and, by 2009, only 35% of Republican voters still declared a belief in climate change. This shift was exacerbated by a growing political polarisation that has pushed Democrats and Republicans to take opposing positions on all issues. Climate change was not originally an inherently left wing or right wing issue. As recently as 2003 it was the Republican Senator John McCain who was sponsoring a cap and trade Climate Stewardship Act. His cross party co-sponsor was Joe Lieberman, a far right Democrat who regularly votes against his own party.
In retrospect it may have been the involvement of Al Gore, his powerpoint documentary in 2006 and his Nobel Prize in 2007 that tipped the balance and decisively stamped this as a liberal, intellectual and international issue- and therefore the property of the other side. It was deeply unfortunate that such partisanship occurred at exactly the time when it was vital that the issue was seen to have broad, and ideally home grown conservative, ownership.
From this point on it was only a small step to the next stage: that, for many politically active Republicans, an active disbelief in climate change became a required mark of their social identity. The New Tork Times notes that, among Tea Party members, climate change denial has now become “an article of faith”. At this election the transformation of denial into a core Republican doctrine was complete. Mike Castle, the only Republican candidate for Senate still prepared to support action on climate change was ousted in Delaware by the borderline insane Tea party favourite, Christine O’Donnell.
It is hard to see how this can shift any time soon. An attitude can be shifted by evidence, but identity markers – especially those held with such aggression as this- are impervious to straight logic and will be bitterly defended. This is a sad and deeply dangerous development.
The second lesson of the mid-term elections is a warning from the climate change future. The tide of public opinion that turned against Barrack Obama is an expression of public anger, frustration and despair over the state of the US economy. This was not of Obama’s doing. Indeed, cyclical economic cycles are a consistent feature of capitalism and are largely beyond the control of any politician. Nonetheless, when the mob is angry it looks for a scapegoat.
A tendency to project emotions onto a scapegoat lies deep in the heart of the human psyche. Despite the generosity of spirit and openness of many North Americans this is culture with Manichean instincts. Scapegoating has been a constant and recurring theme and will, I predict, re-emerge as a key response to future climate impacts when people, feeling powerless and disoriented will be looking for a way to reassert their power and focus their collective despair.
It is hard to predict who the scapegoats will be: a class, an ethnic group, a geographical group, or a foreign country. Perversely it may well be people who have nothing at all to do with climate change, or may even be its victims. But there’s one thing of which we can be certain: that, when confronted with the clear and irrefutable evidence that they have been wrong about climate change, the American right will feel challenged, defensive and guilty. And that is never a good place for people to practice co-operation and express humility.