This is an interesting one because it is so revealing about both the politics and the psychology of the conservative movement in this country. It speaks directly to the power of tribalism that Jonathan Haidt and Chris Mooney have written about.
In this first part, let’s see if we can figure out why climate change denial is a uniquely American phenomena. In fact, it isn’t just a uniquely American phenomena. It is a uniquely Conservative Republican phenomena. No other conservative party in the world denies the science. They all differ on the responses to climate change, most supporting international cooperating and binding treaties as the solution rather than unilateral actions.
This is also a recent phenomenon. Nixon created the EPA and Bush I strengthened it. Even Reagan signed an international agreement to curb the aerosol pollution that was depleting the ozone layer.
US conservatives were generally aligned with international conservatives on all of the big issues. Then something changed. That something has left US conservatives alone in the world, not only on the issue of climate change, but also on issues like supply side economics, opposition to universal health care, and a virulent anti-government ideology.
Let’s see if history can provide us a clue.
The effect of CO2 on the temperature of the earth was predicted as early as 1824. The actual effects of coal burning were measured in 1938. The US military began funding climate research in the ‘40’s. Oceanographer Roger Revelle was the first to sound an alarm in 1957 when he predicted that the oceans would not able to absorb all the additional CO2 that the world was pumping into the atmosphere. In 1979 the Charney Report was one of the first scientific assessments of climate change. The report warned of substantial warming already under way and that, “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late”.
Ronald Reagan, as part of his anti-regulation agenda, politicized climate change. He appointed a climate change denier as Secretary of Energy and proposed deep spending cuts for environmental research including CO2 monitoring. Al Gore led the opposition which managed to save some of the funding. It also saw the emergence of the first prominent climate change denier, Sherwood B. Idso. Prof Idso is a soil scientist who claimed that increased CO2 would be a net gain because of the agricultural benefits. He complained when his theories were debunked in peer reviewed journals. He later became closely associated with the coal industry. When the EPA came out with a report in 1983 warning that climate change was a real, immediate, and catastrophic threat, Reagan responded calling the report alarmist. In 1988, climate scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that climate change was under way, we’d see severe effects within 50 years, and that there was broad consensus in the scientific community that human activity was the likely cause.
In 1989 the fossil fuel industry began funding a disinformation campaign. The Global Climate Coalition and the George C Marshall institute adopted the same techniques perfected by the tobacco industry. In fact they even recruited the group that invented junk science for the tobacco industry (The Advancement of Sound Science Center) to undermine climate change science. Exxon was one of their major funders. They hired a small group of scientists who disagreed with the larger scientific consensus. That group began speaking to conservative political groups. Since their theories wouldn’t pass muster in peer reviewed journals, they started publishing books to support their positions. As their arguments were refuted by the larger scientific community, the disinformation campaign switched their tactics. They began circulating the idea of a global warming conspiracy and attacking the personal reputations of the scientists supporting legitimate climate change research.
That same year (1989) conservative think tanks including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute got involved. They had originally been formed in the 70’s as an intellectual counter-movement to socialism. With the collapse of communism, they needed a new enemy in order to continue to support themselves. They positioned climate change as a threat to private property, free trade, and global capitalism.
In 1998, The American Petroleum Institute got into the act offering $5M to interested scientists who would help promote a program of “raising questions about and undercutting the ‘prevailing scientific wisdom’”.
This activity did not go unnoticed. Articles starting in the 2000’s documented the connections between conservative think tanks and climate change deniers. Fossil fuel industry funding of these organizations has also been well documented including a Newsweek cover article in 2007. The NYT reported in 2015 that the oil companies have known their products caused climate change since the 70’s but continued to fund deniers – much like the tobacco industry.
The dramatic rightward shift of Republican politics in general, pretty much sealed the deal. It also started with Reagan’s election, and has continued unabated since. Climate change became one of the issues of difference between the increasingly conservative Republican party and the Democrats.
Here’s a good summary from an October article in the Guardian.
And it’s clear from the language the Republican Party leaders use that they view climate change not as a scientific or critical risk management issue, but rather as a Democrat issue. Thus, Republican leaders simply can’t accept the need to address climate change, because that would put the on the same side of an issue as Democrats.
An aggressive propaganda campaign waged by the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks has successfully positioned climate change as a political rather than a scientific topic in this country. The rightward shift in American politics provided climate change denial a constituency that it does not have anywhere else in the world. Climate change denial has become a matter of belief for many of those who make up the conservative base of the Republican Party. As a result, it is a litmus test along with supply side economics, evolution, and opposition to universal healthcare. In order to run for office in today’s Republican Party, you have to at least question, if not outright deny the science of climate change.
While it won’t change any conservative minds, in the next segment I’ll go through the six stages of denial for those who question climate change. This won’t touch on every objection that has been raised over the past 25 years of propaganda, but it does follow a fairly logical progression and will address the majority of denial views.