Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Why Educated Republicans are in Denial About Climate Change

Ever since Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth” propelled the theory of climate change into public discourse, political conservatives have fought back with a campaign sowing doubt and distortion in defense of their denial. It is not surprising that the uneducated core of the Right's supporters are readily swayed by this campaign. Lacking scientific literacy, they do not have the tools to resist manipulation by media masters, and they hold a set of political and religious beliefs that is challenged by climate disorder. But I have been curious why educated Republicans, especially scientifically literate ones, remain in denial. Though I have had a few conversations over the years with politically conservative friends, it was not until I queried a brilliant conservative cousin I met at a recent family reunion that the whole attitude set fell into place for me.

As co-author of a paper published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on rapid climate change in the Younger Dryas period 13,000 years ago, my cousin is clearly scientifically literate. A former staffer to Senator Jesse Helms and his protoge, Lauch Faircloth, his conservative credentials are equally strong. So I figured this was the perfect person to ask my perennial question about resistance to climate theory among Republicans who understood science. When I proposed a conversation to him, he laughingly accepted, saying “There's a whole lotta politics packed into a small temperature aberration.” Hearing this, I thought, this guy's immune to Republican orthodoxy; after all, he understands science. But when we met later, he turned on me in a withering barrage of rhetoric. “It's all political. Everything's political...” I was given no space to interject anything furter. I was deeply shocked, but found his rant to go a long way towards explaining his party's denialism.

What he meant was both that there was a (liberal) political agenda, which from an ideological perspective he must have felt obvious, for the main person pushing it was Al Gore, rewarded by a liberal Nobel committee for his efforts. And the science itsef was political, not in the sense that it was being pushed by a global cabal of liberal scientists, but that a scientific consensus had been reached prematurely, primarily driven by peer pressure and research funding sources. That consensus, 96% of climate scientists, was unscientifically closing the door to consideration of other explanations of changes in weather patterns. It was patently biased and unfair. He looked at me sharply, saying “It's weather, not climate,” making sure I understood the difference. Since the brilliant and compelling detective work of his group researching the abrupt die-off of North American large mammals has been steadfastly resisted by a scientific community loathe to let go of their own theories, he easily identified with the scientific underdog.

So what is the liberals' agenda with climate change? To really have a chance to stem the tide of potentially catastrophic climate change, the liberal argument goes, we need to have national and international agreements regulating CO2 emissions. Thus climate change plays beautifully into the liberal bias towards more government regulation. The UN has sponsored the process of negotiations for over twenty years, and the IPCC operates under its auspices. The UN is bad enough, but since it does not have the power to enforce treaties, this arena is simply a transitional step towards a world government, which would be needed to enforce carbon regulations – and of course a whole litany of endangered freedoms and the rights of sovereign states. I have heard this argument from many conservatives who are fearful of climate change regulation, some with scientific background. Many see it as a conspiracy, though they don't clearly identify the conspirators, especially when I press them on the assumption that the scientific establishment is “liberal.”

Then my cousin lambasted me with the deepest complaint of all, screwing up his handsome face in total repugnance to blast the “self-loathing” of those who decry the human role in levels of carbon pollution potentially fatal to civilization. Thus another in a long stream of accusations that liberals are looking for something to cry about and feel guilty for. This time we had found an issue for which we could flagellate ourseves to the max.

As I drove home from the reunion, I was reminded of Nietzsche, who critiqued the “bad conscience” of the “slave morality” with which Christianity had shackled the world. The opposing position, that of the master who would “sleep like a baby” while slaughtering innocents in the name of a just empire (nominally Christian since the age of Constantine) is Nietzsche's will to power. To check our powers as a species would be to injure our essential gifts of craftiness, strength, and cleverness. The quest for power and glory is our birthright, and our cunning craft is needed all the more when the odds are against us.

Some, notably Paul Crutzen, argue that we are already in the anthropocene era, when human domination and manipulation of the ecosphere is simply a fact, no longer an aspiration or something decried as immanent. My cousin accepts this as a matter of course, and thus it is our duty to keep coming up with technological fixes, as in geoengineering, to allow the myth of progress continued play. To back down now, when the master class is needed more than ever, would be a failure of nerve, a dishonor to our nature, a descent into the self-loathing that has always characterized religions that negate life - and liberals who are horrified by robber barons red with tooth and claw.

Many say that the reason intelligent Republicans categorically deny climate change is greed. Granted, wealth bequeaths power. But my cousin's, and Nietzsche's position is more fundamental, and necessary for those who instinctually realize money-grubbing is not a sufficient reason for condemning the species to suicide. Of course many wealthy Democrats are motivated by greed, but the party doesn't find this sufficient reason to deny science, as Jon Huntsman courageously noted about his own party, driven by its reacionary wing. With this cousin, who knows his science, and with a whole bevy of politicians who seek or would retain power, the will to power trumps science, reason, and prudence, and the profit motive is only tangential to this essential drive.

Unfortunately, the Democrats have not been able to redefine the narrative on climate change, and are now silent on the issue, meekly colluding with know-nothing Republicans. I was encouraged earlier this year when President Obama, pressured by the Repulican House, slapped down the Keystone pipeline on procedural grounds. This was a quintessentially lawyerly thing to do. But what was noteworthy about his statement was that he included global warming among the reasons for not abetting the tarsands project by allowing the pipline a border crossing. This was the first time since the Senate fight to pass a climate bill collapsed that he had even mentioned the subject. Alas, politics intruded once again, and he later gave a deplorable speech in Oklahoma before a backdrop of huge pipe sections, enthusiastically opening the southern route for what now seems set to be a fait accompli during “my second term.” The will to power as realpolitik operates across party lines.

“I am so thankful I live now” my Republican cousin proclaimed as we heard about the miserable lives of the early Swiss colonists in New Bern, our maternal forebears. Indeed, I am thankful, too, but I know in my gut that we have already passed our apogee. American Exceptionalism is a laughable myth, headed for the same graveyard of ideas as the myth of progress. Civilizations rise and fall, and ours is no exception. Because it rests upon an unprecedented reckless extraction of half a billion years of stored sunlight, the fall is going to be much harder this time. This would be true even without the climate change this relentless activity has caused, exacerbating the Peak Oil crisis.

So how do citizen with more allegiance to science than to political ideology respond to this? Gore concluded his 24-hour Climate Reality broadcast, aired internationally in September, by advising us to “win the argument.” But if underlying assumptions are different, there will be no listening, never a true engagement. Better to have the denialists' encounter with those with similar values, perhaps fellow Republicans. My next post will explore this terrain.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]