I’m interested in finding out how and why climate change action became a partisan issue. As Stephen Schneider says in his new book, there’s a reason that “conservation” sounds so much like “conservatism”.
The fiscal conservative school of thought is to save money for a rainy day, and to minimize spending so the economy is more sustainable in the long run – so why does this only apply to money? Money, after all, is only a representation of wealth, which – more often than not – ends up representing resources and ecosystem services, which depend on a stable climate. Conservatism, at least in our society, also tends to be more aggressive to national security threats such as terrorism. Why is climate change exempt yet again? Is it somehow any less threatening?
It seems dubious that climate change action really conflicts with conservative ideologies. How and why did it begin to be framed this way? At some point along the line, conservative media and politicians began to repeat it, to the point where it became accepted as the “party line” of the ideology, and citizens who were conservative on most other issues accepted this addition to the party line automatically.
This is why I would ideally prefer a direct democracy, as it allows citizens to vote directly on each issue, rather than just choose the party that hits the most of their requirements. We can’t just categorize people by ideology and assume that all of their opinions will fit neatly into one box. (Or three boxes at once – several flagged comments accused me of being “a Communist and a socialist and a Marxist” – is it even possible to be all three of those things at once? Don’t they have some inherent contradictions?)
I’ve stated before that my opinions on policy tend to be more social, but I’m beginning to wonder more and more how much this reflects my character and how much reflects my age. In world issues class, everyone took the Political Compass quiz, and plotted their results anonymously on a single graph so we could look at the class as a whole. Virtually everyone was in the bottom left quadrant – social libertarian. I was somewhere in the middle of those dots. Unless my class was a hotbed of radicals, it seems that ideology tends to correspond to age. Maybe it’s not because I’m a social libertarian. Maybe it’s just part of being seventeen, and as I grow older, I’ll remain somewhere near the centre of my society’s political spectrum, wherever it may fall.
Right now, at least, my opinions regarding many matters of policy fall to the left on Canada’s political spectrum. However, I view my work on climate change communication to be very separate to ideology. It began as a bid for a secure future for my generation, which is looking less and less likely. However, as the anti-action campaigns began to attack scientists and the scientific process, rather than (or in addition to) the theories and statistics themselves, I have begun to defend the nature of science, specificially climate science, instead.
I think I have the mind of a scientist, and I really want to be a scientist. Not to be a doctor/dentist/pharmacist, which is often the automatic course for high school students who are good at science and math, but to be a researcher and conduct studies and publish in journals and discover things. I feel more and more sure about this as I get older. I think this deep connection to the scientific process has given me some elements of conservatism. I am quite conservative about the process of peer-review, resist change to its structure, and hold tightly to fundamental discoveries in the field of climate science, rather than blowing off Arrhenius just because of something written in Energy & Environment.
I am not writing this blog, or pushing for climate change action and communication, for any ideology or party or political belief. I am defending both science and the future, two parties that get very little say in the political system. I am defending the mountain of evidence that many seem willing to discount entirely. I am defending the millions of unborn citizens who have the right to a world just as good, if not better, than the one we have today.
This post has become a ramble I didn’t expect to go on – it’s late, after all, and I’m a teenager who needs her sleep. So I’ll bring it back to the beginning. Are there any recommendations as to which sources I should look at for research into how and why this became a partisan issue? Books, US politics backgrounders, Spencer Weart posts? I’d appreciate your input.
When I spoke to Dr. Andrew Weaver, I asked him exactly this question. He said the turning point was Kyoto.
At the time, I was in eighth grade, and wasn’t following it (all I recall distinctly from that era was Rick Mercer’s ads for the One Tonne Challenge; I didn’t read much on the policy nor do I recall seeing any of the Friends of Science inactivist noise machine working), so I can’t speak personally. However, Dr. Weaver told me that this was the point where he noticed (economic) libertarians stopped providing policy alternatives and started attacking the science, and when he started seeing real attacks on the science. Prior to that there apparently was a good discussion with some members of the right to set up alternative policies, after that the right fully embraced the (already extant, btw) conspiracy theories. I can’t check this too much given the relatively sparse nature of the World Wide Web back then; most of this discussion, were it taking place online, would have been in newsgroups. You could try asking a veteran of sci.environment; I’d suggest Michael Tobis.
This timeline is loosely supported by Climate Cover-Up, although they give evidence of some of the partisan PR machine working earlier than that (in particular the George C. Marshall Institute and Western Fuels). Given GMI’s early involvement, I suspect this part of the movement was a combination of industry lobbying (just like any other industry in the face of regulation) and anticommunist rhetoric (recall that the Berlin Wall only fell 1989). I’ve also seen some documents from the early 90s that are clearly ideologically charged (but not necessarily partisan), both from the traditional “right” and “left” (the funniest of which is probably this one from a familiar source). The buildup to Kyoto was probably a tipping point for popular acceptance for this movement, but it certainly started earlier than that at the higher levels. I’m anxiously awaiting Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt as well – if any book is to give the history of denial, it’s that one.
I’m almost certain John Mashey could provide better references than I could here, though. I’m too much of a newcomer to this issue to comment more that that.
On the partisanship point (as opposed to resources), more recently, though, there are a rare few on the right who do seem to realize exactly what you’re saying – in the US, Sen. Lindsey Graham (longtime ally of John McCain) comes to mind as an interesting example, because he’s actually reasonably influential in a position of power (as opposed to being a think-tanking individual or pundit). I can’t wait to see what impact he’ll have (and what else will be driven out of the woodwork) once cap-and-trade reaches the front burner of public consciousness and political commentary.
The most interesting thing I’ve read on this from a non-left political angle, though, has to be Dr. Myles Allan’s recent essay on climate policy. This is worth noting because 1) he’s an atmospheric physicist, 2) he’s a very vocal Tory (Britain’s Conservative Party; Canada’s Conservatives share the same nickname), and 3) he’s actively frustrated at how silly the debate has become. He actively lambasts a media that sees it as a team game (i.e. agree with the science = agree with policy suggestions), the conspiracists who have held back policy development on one side of the spectrum, and at inactivists like Lomborg whom he decries as laughably ineffective. His policy idea is honestly interesting, and if implemented properly I could even get behind it (I don’t know how effective it’d be at changing atmospheric composition, but I will be the first to admit I’m more likely to be wrong here). I’d love nothing more than to see a solid debate between the main policies on the left (cap/trade and taxation) and a policy like his, but for all the reasons he brings up, that’s unlikely.
[Thanks Brian for all the references, I’ll be sure to check them out.
Yes, the political parties in Britain are very different to North America in this way. I remember reading, I believe in Climate Wars, a quote from the then-Conservative leader in Britain, attacking Tony Blair because he wasn’t doing enough on climate change. As opposed to wasting money, killing jobs, etc. A very interesting rhetoric.
I can’t wait for Oreskes’ book either – does it come out in May? -Kate]
Well from what I have observed in my friends comments it became bipartisan when they found out that they *may* be required to pay taxes (Cap and Trade) because they think Cap and Trade infringes on their liberties. So, they try to discount the science in order to get rid of the proposed solution rather than helping with a solution we all can agree on.
They dislike Al Gore so that is a big factor too.
[The “more taxes” argument I find strange, because most cap and trade/carbon taxes/cap and dividend (which I hear you’re doing over in California, is that true?) are revenue neutral. It also makes it easier for individual citizens to make money off the deal, as you have more control over how much you spend on carbon-rich fuels than you do on how much you pay for income taxes. -Kate]
I would recommend the book Bunts, though I will sum up the only relevant part.
I think your analysis fails in the definition of conservatism. Yes fiscal conservatives want to spend less money, or at least have a balanced budget, but this in the case of government spending, not individual spending.
Perhaps there is a strain of religious conservatism for which your analogy applies. John McCain comes close, and indeed he is supporting action on this issue, or at least did before his primary challenge.
However, there is another strain of conservatism, which is related.
You make the mistake of taking the scientific case as a proven fact that all should accept, and only with this assumption does your point have merit with regards to fiscal conservatives. This brings me to George Will’s Bunts. Been awhile since I read it, but basically he writes ‘Cubs fans are natural conservatives. Liberals see the world as sunny and happy where God distributes everything fairly. Cubs fans and conservatives are dark and gloomy, believe that Providence is harsh, and ARE SKEPTICAL OF ALL NEW IDEAS.
[Scientists are also skeptical of all new ideas.
For what reason should we not assume that the basic AGW is, for all intents and purposes to the general public, a “proven fact”? -Kate]
I expect part of what you’re encountering is a couple of old lines. The more often-quoted is Shaw’s, that goes something like “If you’re not a liberal when young, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when old, you have no head.”
The one I prefer is Ambrose Bierce’s definitions, from The Devil’s Dictionary:
Liberal: Someone who wants to change the current evils for new ones.
Conservative: Someone who wants to keep the current evils.
By Bierce’s defintion, the US Republican party is quite liberal, and it is the Democrats who are the conservatives.
I think the problem is that modern day ‘conservatives’ are in fact mostly neo-liberal. Sure, most are conservative socially, but when it comes between the market and tradition it’s usually the market that wins (probably because the idea of the market has been internalized by conservatives that it appears to be traditional itself).
As Brian D above mentioned, Climate Cover-up has some background information. Also see Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming (Mark Bowen).
I just started reading Dr. Andrew Weaver’s book, Keeping Our Cool. It doesn’t specifically cover your question, but thought I’d recommend it anyway (I started reading it 2 hours ago, and am just taking a break now so it’s fresh in my mind). So far, he’s been addressing the disparity between what the scientists know and what the public knows–of course part of that is the fault of the media, but Dr. Weaver paints them in a more sympathetic light (for the most part), which was good for me to read as I was becoming extremely disillusioned by journalists. I liked seeing his perspective, and his book is encouraging in other areas too.
Back on topic (you’re not the only rambler :-) if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend Dr. Naomi Oreskes’ The American Denial of Global Warming (the video is on the web in several places). It was the video that introduced me into the political roots of think tanks, and how they battled against not just climate change but science when the science was inconvenient–e.g. tobacco and cancer, CFCs and ozone, etc).
And I applaud your desire to be a scientist. I can say from experience that desire becomes stronger as you age. That was my desire. I ended up in social work and counseling though. At age 30 my science desire was so strong I went back to school and changed careers completely.
So, if your desire is that strong already you’re gonna love that career choice (and yeah, there is a bit of an ego-boost to saying to yourself, “I’m a scientist”, and knowing you get to do really cool things).
Here in the U.S. it is fairly fruitless to apply the concepts to liberalism or conservatism to politics, inasmuch as these terms have become essentially meaningless. Our two parties are built on amalgams of smaller constituencies which are divided along traditional social and religious lines. This frequently leads to some rather ironic consequences. For instance, most Christians here are pro-life, which therefore should be a defining issue. Yet Black Christians overwhelmingly vote Democrat, while White Christians overwhelmingly vote Republican.
Insofar as climate change is concerned, the nature of politics in this country requires that every issue must have only two sides. Each party thereupon stakes a claim to one side, while accusing the other of being on the wrong side. Unfortunately, climate science itself is politically neutral. But since it has become the object of politics, the parties here divide it by asserting that the theory of AGW is either right or wrong – and Republicans have staked their claim to the notion that it is wrong. So, as the evidence for this theory continues to mount, Republican opinion makers must increasingly rely on junk science and conspiracy theories to support their position.
It may be well to remember that changing one’s mind amounts to nothing more than political suicide in America. Our public, conditioned as we are to believe one side is always right and the other side is always wrong, is just not capable of accepting an accumulation of evidence which undermines whatever it is we individually believe. In essence, politicians are only doing what average Americans do – that is, investing a measure of their own personal worth in the correctness of the views they hold. I daresay if someone like Senator James Inhofe sat down, patiently reviewed the evidence, determined the validity of AGW and then said so publicly, he might just as well pack his bags and head back home. He therefore has absolutely no incentive whatsoever to make a rational analysis of the evidence – no incentive that is, except the responsibility of serving his constituents honestly – and we all know how little American politicians care about THAT.
I find it extremely interesting that it is the science itself which as become the issue. It seems to me it would make more sense for our parties to divide this issue along the lines of how to deal with the consequences, rather than something as basic as elementary atmospheric science. I have remarked before that by betting everything on the science being wrong – Republicans have pretty much forfeited their seats at the table at which the ways and means of mitigation will eventually be determined. This is sort of like the “Alamo Defense” – and I credit its adoption to another feature of American politics – as follows:
Most observers will credit the influence of oil, gas and coal industries on Republican politics as a main reason why the party is so deeply committed to denialism. While this is no doubt true, I think you can identify the substantially more pervasive and powerful influence of white evangelicals – which as I mentioned before have become a core Republican constiuency. White evangelical organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention signed up to denialism early on. You can go to “The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission” of the SBC for a pretty good idea of the connection between climate change denialism and evangelical Christian practices. The address is: ” erlc.com “. It makes for fascinating reading.
Another great site is the Pew Research Center ( pewresearch.org ). You will have to do a lot of rummaging around at this site – but it has tons of information on voting trends – and specifically religious attitudes towards climate change. One revealing survey is at:
By the way, the Pew Center also has a terrific climate science site at: ” pewclimate.org “. Its really worth a look.
Not to beat this to death, but to summarize: white evangelicals in America generally oppose the theory of AGW on religious grounds – and since they have become possibly the most important Republican constituency, it is now next to impossible to elect a Republican candidate who acknowledges the scientific evidence which supports the theory of AGW.
-Hope you find this a useful suggestion.
This is a good question, Kate. I think one would have to trace rumblings in the US back to around 1981 when the so-called “malaise” was replaced by “morning in America”. The solar panels were ripped off the White House and the age of consumption was re-started. James Watt became the Secretary of the Interior.
I’d like to find some references to back this up, but at least in the US, people rejected the harsh realities as personified by President Carter. Reagan was the first modern conservative President and set the tone by gathering a coalition of the religious right, northern blue-collar voters, former southern Democrats and of course the business class. Since Reagan is still held up as the standard, one should look back to his ascendancy. There might be more information on Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science, but it has been a few years since I have read it.
The point about Kyoto is apt – when science leads to action, then to prevent the action, one has to undermine the science, and since the science is so strong, it’s now time to attack the scientists.
Just some early AM musings.
ChrisR hits the nail on the head and Deech56 is correct that Moody’s book The Republican War on Science will answer you question and then some! This book is on my short-list of recommendations but I hesitate to post that in my Suggested Reading page because it is so polarizing – much like using Gore’s name anywhere. BTW, Gore’s new book Our Choice is essential reading to those that wish to learn about mitigation and conservation.
I am sure I have linked to this study here before but you all should read:
The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of – and Making Progress In – The American Culture War of Fact
Essentially this study shows that if one does not like the solution to climate change then the science must be wrong. Shoot the messenger, basically.
Seconding Scott Mandia’s suggestions, although I seem to recall all of them being raised on ClimateSight before. There’s a good caveat about reading too much into the paper, though – I made the mistake of quoting Braman as cited in Climate Wars, which is subtly but significantly different from the conclusion in the paper.
(This reminds me… I’ve been meaning to compile a reading list as a followup to my earlier such attempt, except this time focusing on books and papers rather than general online resources. When I do, would you accept a submission here?)
Yep, May 25, 2010. I can hardly wait.
In the meantime, she’s got a new talk on the subject (h/t Deltoid). At the link there’s a video, plus a great comment from John Mashey.
[Brian, you’re welcome to guest post a reading list here. Send me an email when you finish it. -Kate]
If you are getting hate mail you must be having some effect, you are getting noticed. Please do not let it get to you.
This is the essay, I think, that spells out the answer: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/11/global-warming-and-weather-psychology/
“There are four basic tribes in this war. One group prefers a society that is more hierarchical, a rigid world of order, of structure, of class and authority and elites, where things don’t change much.
Another group prefers a society without those constraints, where everybody has a chance at everything. A third tribe is more individualist, people who want a society that will protect them when the lion attacks, but otherwise pretty much leaves them alone. The fourth group are community-minded people who think we’re all in it together, 24/7. We are all some combination of these underlying worldviews.
As social animals, it’s important to us, literally to our survival, that our tribe is winning. So we adopt positions on issues of the day that support our underlying tribe’s beliefs on how society should operate. That strengthens the dominance of our tribe’s view, and wins us support from the tribe as a member in good standing.”
It’s a great description of where we are today, which is, bluntly: conservatives are attacking climate science because the only reasonable solutions have to do with an aggressive government intervention (bad!) coupled with international cooperation (even worse!) Because they haven’t got a solution for the problem, they chose to believe that there is no problem; i.e., to attack the science.
I think the best thing we can do to constructively engage conservatives on this issure is to help them articulate a strategy on climate change that is consonant with their values. Until they see a conservative solution, they will not be prepared to admit that there is a problem.