Climate Change Denial

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November 4, 2010


George Marshall @ 3:10 am

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.

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  1. Mark R says:

    As an American, I do not hold much import with the results of the recent US by-election. As disappointing as it is to see avowed idiocy regarding global warming become a litmus test for the Fringe Right, California voters just upheld their laws against an aggressive campaign by Big Oil, et al., and elected to continue on a path of alternative energy development for the entire state. California and the NE US, holding large populations, drive progressive law in the rest of the country.
    I am not a hopeful or optimistic individual, but solar and wind development have continued apace despite a richly-funded and coordinated effort to stop any change in US policy or practice. I now believe that these alternative energy sources will come to predominate in the US, sooner than anyone could have hoped. In addition, some political deal will eventually be made regarding nuclear energy, and these three will start to supplant petroleum for electrical generation to a noticeable degree.
    Will it happen just in the nick of time, and sufficient to finally put an end to sixty years of stalling, lying, and obfuscation? I doubt it, but as I’ve stated, I am not an optimist.
    If civil society falls, there will surely be scapegoats, and the most likely scapegoat will be Science–and “its” technology which “failed” the common people. Perhaps the witch hunt will be undertaken against intelligence itself.

  2. ozbizbozzle says:

    As you point out Climate change has become a socially held belief according to which tribe you choose to align with. The psycholical need to still be, and move towards, being tribal when we have a global issue requiring unity, needs to be understood.
    My theory is that being drip fed capitalism from birth, or any monetary system for that matter, creates competition and therefore an adversarial nature, which becomes the default mechanism to deal with any issue, be it climate change, politics or the economy.
    If we can all put non-adversarial at the top of our agendas it may spread. I certainly am trying and its hard, but it is something I can do right now. Dont know well i’d fare with a Tea Party Activist!

  3. A very good piece. If, in the face of your pessimistic analysis, one were looking for hope, I wonder if the age of voters is a factor. As the photo reminds us, many Tea Party supporters are relatively old (45 plus) and white. I have read (but cannot immediately put my hands on the source) that, on average, young people in the U.S. (18 – 30) are less religious (attending a place of worship in numbers comparable to West European peers) and more socially liberal (e.g. less hostile to homosexuality) than previous generations. These things in themselves are of course not of course a guarantee of social and political progress, and there will be plenty of young people for whom this is not true. There is also no guarantee that younger voters will not be immune to concerted disinformation campaigns, and if even if they are, it is likely to be years before they start to be more loudly heard in politics. Still, things can change.

  4. Crista says:

    The rest of the developed world is far ahead of the US in climate change adaptation. Possible framing: “The right wing deniers are making us weak. We are losing, falling behind, letting the Others get ahead of us. Combine with using military budget for climate change adaptation, since it is a “defense” imperative.
    Maybe this re-focus of fear and loathing will help?
    The second we find a way to make climate change adaption profitable for the military industrial complex we will instantly have the problem solved since that is the backbone of our economy.

  5. Julie K. says:

    We live to survive on every day. People need to have their jobs to feed their families. Just small part of us cares about politics: unfortunately, we can see what the results from elections are rising up… We try to be ecological, but that is just not enough to reverse climate changes…

  6. Bill Dowling says:

    People want to hear good news.
    Hence their leaders give much prefer to give out good news and lie about the bad news so as to become or remain their leaders.
    At least half the problem in the USA is that around half the people, including a great many of their leaders, truly believe some “good news” already – that Jesus Christ is going to come back soon and fix everything that is wrong with our present world!
    Since their simple minds are focussed on that and the hereafter, where do you expect the “bad news” of man-made climate change to figure on their priority list?
    Clearly many people would much rather believe any old fairy tale with a happy ending.
    And, most people would much rather accept anything that sounds remotely better news from a politician than swallow a set of facts that lead to such a bad ending as serious climate change killing millions of people in the future, particularly if prevention requires much self sacrifice on their part in the present and interim period.
    Frankly, I am far more concerned about about the overconsumption of natural resources on a finite planet that is being caused by overpopulation by us humans – than I am about climate change.
    You see, apart from the destruction of our own natural habitat and the continuous depletion of all other natural resources, the overconsumption of fossil fuels is the sole cause of man-made climate change.
    Yet every new person on the planet is yet another resource and fossil fuel consumer and another CO2 emitter.
    Quite clearly, we wont have much effect on serious climate change solely by trying to reduce the CO2 emissions of the existing population, any more than we will have much effect on natural resource depletion solely by trying to reduce resource consumption by the existing population.
    Without taking action to gradually slow, then stop and then gradually reverse global population growth, at best we can only hope to postpone the inevitable for a while longer.
    At present, more human consumers and emitters are arriving at the rate of 1.5 million more a week.
    Clearly we are trying to run up a down escalator with no end in sight.
    So, until the leaders in the USA and everywhere else face up to the whole set of underlying problems now being faced by the human race, and present the whole unvarnished truth to their peoples, together with a full set of agreed properly coordinated actions, we are all pretty much doomed to experience a series of disasters affecting a great many us humans pretty soon now anyway.
    Sadly, I had high hopes of Obama giving us all a much stronger lead in the right direction.
    Perhaps we humans all prefer to live in hope – rather than face up to reality?
    i.e. Might as well live in hope and have faith (e.g. believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ and look towards the hereafter) and meanwhile carry on consuming and emitting CO2 rather than do anything about these difficult people problems in the presentI suppose…..?
    Did you know that Non -religious/atheist/agnostic/humanist people are outnumbered by about 6 to 1 by those following some form of a religious faith?
    Is that fact not a huge part of the problem here, not only in the USA, but everywhere else?

    IMHO, we have 21st century problems to deal with, yet we are now are hamstrung by having far too many people on this planet with mindsets that, while they may have served their purpose and had their place many centuries ago, collectively they now seriously threaten the survival of the human race on this planet.

  7. Sorry to say, history – including ancient history – tells us that we were competitive and tribal long before modern capitalism, or even money were invented. The Americans are threatening to behave like people rattled by a declining position in the world; like the British before 1914. Meanwhile, does anyone know whether Archibald is talking sense (or nonsense?) when he says that the warming impact of CO2 is logarithmic? According to him, its future impact will be tiny and overwhelmed by weakening solar activity. I doubt this when solar activity has already been weakening since about 1998.

  8. tempterrain says:

    Yes, the effect of CO2 in the atmosphere is logarithmic, or at least approximately so for the concentrations present currently. Arrhenius discovered this law at the turn of the last century.

    That’s not the same as saying that IR absorption by CO2 and other GHG’s is saturated, and that CO2 levels can safely be allowed to rise out of all control.

    The IPCC report, AR4, gives a most likely figure of 3 degC for this warming although higher figures can not be ruled out.

  9. Jay Alt says:

    Very interesting and worthwhile. But the idea conservatives were nearing consensus to *do* anything to reduce U.S. GHG emissions is odd. The Bush climate policy was designed to tread water. They cancelled the Clinton high-mileage auto partnership with automakers, which was well on the way to produce hybrid cars (U.S. Prius). This was replaced that with useless hydrogen car research. The climate issue needed more study. They challenged the IPCC SAR report (oops, that failed when NAS upheld it). So, waiiiiit for more research. Dump Bob Watson for Pachairi; at Exxon’s suggestion. Launch more satellites. Let former oil lobbyists edit the science reports. Mention climate once in state of union address. Propose CCS projects and never build them. Undermine IPCC negotiations by starting another track involving the biggest polluters. etc, etc, etc

  10. opit says:

    At the time it came out, I couldn’t understand why an article from an occasional contributor to the Oil Drum didn’t make a bigger splash.
    Sustainability, energy independence and agricultural policy
    And biofuels has replaced feeding cars for feeding people as a concern – with no net gain of fuel available for the effort !
    And just because I’m feeling snarky – how have you arrived at a ‘scientific’ model without including all factors ( you don’t KNOW them all ! ), calculating them accurately in various vectors and changes, calculating what part of the cycle(s) ( after a mini ice age ) you are on, ignoring the greatest energy storage reservoir ( water ), scoffing at Chaos modeling being intrinsically G.I.G.O….and then proceeded to announce a ‘science’ which is ‘overwhelmingly accepted TRUTH’…when there is no possible way to verify the postulate that you have predicted the future via magic theorems!
    Damn but I’m stupid…if I accept such ridiculous proposals unchallenged.

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