RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Roberts writes: "The problems that face humanity now are transnational, incremental, and complex (think, e.g., global pandemics) and will inevitably require active national governments and some form of global cooperation."

Rush Limbaugh recently said you can't be a Christian and believe in climate change. (photo: EIB)
Rush Limbaugh recently said you can't be a Christian and believe in climate change. (photo: EIB)

Can Climate Science Be Rendered Conservative-Friendly?

By David Roberts, Grist

17 August 13


ne common criticism of the way climate science has been communicated over the last decade or so is that scientists and advocates have led with a liberal perspective: Here's a big problem that we need to solve with government regulations and mandates. It didn't help that climate change came to prominence via Al Gore, a partisan liberal long loathed on the right.

Such an approach, it is said, was guaranteed to incite opposition on the right. And sure enough: Those who deny the existence, anthropogenity, or severity of climate change are, for the most part, white, male, ideological conservatives. There are a great many exceptions, of course, and a great many gradations and varieties of skepticism, but the majority of overt denialists (or whatever you want to call them, I really don't care) in America share that particular cultural identity.

There's something to this critique - there's no doubt that most of the scientists and advocates speaking out about the issue are left of center - but not as much as critics make out. As I argued the other day, climate was fated to become polarized by forces far larger than the communications strategies of climate hawks.

But it is worth asking: Could climate hawks have made a pitch that appealed to conservatives? Is there such a pitch available today?

It might seem weird even to ask the question. Most people, I've found, just take it for granted that the answer is yes, that there is some message or messenger that can do the trick for any demographic or group, including ideological conservatives.

I'm not so sure. It's not clear to me that what passes for conservatism today could possibly accommodate the real facts on global warming; those facts carry implications that would do considerable violence to the conservative worldview. In a strange way, someone like James Inhofe seems to understand this better than many self-styled centrists and journalists. He knows, in a way they don't always seems to, what it means to accept the science.

Obviously a lot of people disagree with me on this (including many conservatives!). So let's talk it through a bit.

First, it's important to begin by taking a clear-eyed look at the state of U.S. conservatism. I fear that many people - especially people who don't follow politics closely, which includes lots of scientists - have a rather dated conception of what it means to be conservative. They usually imagine the kind of moderate, patrician Republican that was once common in the Northeast. (If you want to see what I'm talking about, look at how Republicans are portrayed on Aaron Sorkin shows like The West Wing and The Newsroom.)

But that kind of socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican, the kind who used to cut deals with conservative Southern Democrats, has effectively been driven from the party. Over the last 20 to 30 years, the right has gotten more and more tribal, ideologically homogenous, and extreme. (See, for the gazillionth time, asymmetrical polarization.) What in Reagan's day were defeasible preferences for lower taxes and less regulation have become absolutist dogmas, holy writ defied only at risk of a Tea Party primary challenge. Today it's: Congress is full of socialists. Today it's: Any cooperation with Democrats or Obama, on anything, is disqualifying. Today it's: Shut down the government or default on U.S. debt unless Obama agrees to defund a democratically passed healthcare law. Today it's far right vs. farther right, with Grover Norquist on the side of moderation. (Think about that.)

I've quoted Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein probably a half-dozen times, but once more for the record:

However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become a resurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

It's as bad as it's ever been today, but the American conservative movement's evolution in this direction has been underway at least since Newt Gingrich ran the House in the mid-'90s, arguably longer.

So it's not enough to find some throwback moderate like Bob Inglis (who got Tea Partied out of Congress!) or some randos in a think tank who like carbon taxes and say, "Look, see, Republicans get it!" That's just sleight of hand. The question is whether there's a message on climate that could reach the actually existing Republican base.

Lots of people have done lots of work on the efficacy of different climate messages; I couldn't begin to cover it all. But let's look at an illustrative example. Researchers Matt Nisbet and Ed Maibach did a whole series of surveys and one-on-one conversations with people about three different frames for introducing climate change: the environmental frame, the national security frame, and the public-health frame.

The appeal of the environmental frame was, as you'd imagine, somewhat limited. But what really interested me were the results on national security:

... the research also indicates that the national security frame could "boomerang among audience segments already doubtful or dismissive of the issue, eliciting unintended feelings of anger." ... "It is possible," the researchers write, "that members of the 'doubtful' and 'dismissive' segments perceived the [national security argument] to be an attempt to make a link between an issue they may care deeply about (national security) and an issue that they tend to dismiss (climate change), or they felt the article was attempting to co-opt values they care strongly about, thereby producing a negative reaction."
Whatever the source of the anger, however, not only did the national security message not persuade opponents of action on climate change, it seemed to fan the flames of their opposition.

This makes intuitive sense. For conservatives, national security is a masculine issue (about toughness) and the environment is a feminine issue (about nurturing) and if there's one thing conservatives hate, it's getting feminine peanut butter on their masculine chocolate. More broadly, trying to smuggle climate in on the back of an issue they think of as their own is a crude trick that they are certain to see through.

The public-health frame does better: "across audience segments, the public health focus was the most likely to elicit emotional reactions consistent with support for climate change mitigation and adaptation." Health feels personal and somewhat within our control. If you tell someone their lives or the lives of their children are in danger, naturally they're more keen to see the problem solved. The problem with this frame, of course, is that no climate mitigation policy can have any effect on the health of currently living people - the effects, if there are any, will come 50 years hence.

The main point stressed by Nisbet and Maibach, though, is that descriptions of the problem should be paired with solutions so as not to overwhelm people or make them fatalistic. What solutions?

Those specific action items, the research suggests, could include policies to make energy sources cleaner, to make cars and buildings more energy-efficient, to make public transportation more accessible and affordable, to improve the quality and safety of food, and to make cities and towns friendlier to cyclists and pedestrians.

What do all these empowering solutions have in common? They rely on active government policy - incentives and regulations and mandates and standards. I encourage you to head over to a popular conservative website like National Review and propose policies to "make public transportation more accessible and affordable." See how far that gets you. As Chris Hayes stressed the other day, conservatives are hostile climate science in part because they hate all the climate solutions. So: if you only stress the problem, you shut people down; if you stress solutions, you shut conservatives down. See the Catch 22?

Still, all that said, I'll concede that some conservatives could be brought around to do some things that would have some effect on carbon emissions. But marginal, incremental policies are grotesquely inadequate. What about the real truth on climate? Not the "your kids might get asthma" stuff but the whole brutal logic of it?

Consider the following propositions:

1. The climate is warming due to the rapid addition of greenhouse gases, primarily as a result of burning fossil fuels, and most of the effects of unrestrained climate change will be extremely deleterious to human welfare, first and especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

2. Global temperature rise of 2 degree Celsius or more is likely to trigger severe, irreversible effects; rise of 4 or 6 degrees could, in the view of some scientists, threaten human civilization itself.

3. Preventing 2 degrees (or even 3, or 4) would involve a massive and rapid reduction in fossil fuel consumption and deforestation; developed world emissions would have to peak in 2015 or so and fall by almost 10 percent a year every year thereafter, a rate well over double what has ever been witnessed in human history.

These are factual statements; there's nothing in them about values or solutions. They constitute a description of the situation, and a description of the situation cannot, in itself, tell us what to do.

But ... c'mon. There are surely plenty of debates to be had about policy, about balancing risk and cost and social benefits, but if GHGs are causing harm today, and are going to cause almost unfathomable harm for centuries to come, and we want to prevent those harms, then we need to rapidly and massively reduce GHGS, and to do that, to break sharply from the status quo, we will need active, large-scale government intervention.

The way people have tried to avoid this conclusion - other than idle fantasies about a global system of atmospheric property rights enforced by tort law - is by resort to a revenue-neutral carbon tax. This is supposed to be the way to keep government mostly out of it, to protect small-government sensibilities. Listen to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) speaking about climate on the Senate floor, sounding almost desperate:

I'm willing to do a carbon pollution fee that sets the market in balance, and returns every single dollar to the American people. No new agencies. No new taxes. No bigger government. Every dollar back. Just a balanced market, with the costs included in the price, which will make better energy choices, increase jobs, and prevent pollution.

No bigger government! No new agencies! Anyone? Please?

Of course, no Republican has taken him up on this, because they don't want to work with Dems and they don't want to hurt fossil fuel companies. But even if they took their purported principles seriously and were interested in such a "carbon fee," it's just a fantasy that we can limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees with nothing but a tax. Taxes are great for marginal shifts in production, and if we'd started 20 or 30 years ago, maybe slow and steady could have won the race. But now, our time is up. Now we're talking about non-incremental phase shifts, which will involve something like wartime mobilization. A tax alone can't do that any more than a tax alone could have prepared the U.S. for WWII.

Anyway, a global, harmonized carbon tax is about as likely as a unicorn stampede. Progress on climate policy is going to be piecemeal, halting, ugly, and hard fought. In most cases, it will involve people defending the status quo against people asking government for new investments, regulations, and legislation. There is just no plausible laissez-faire route to 2 degrees.

That's why, when it comes down to it, I just don't think there's any way to make the facts of climate change congenial to the contemporary U.S. conservative perspective. Once they accept the facts, the severity and urgency of the climate crisis, they are committed to either a) supporting vigorous government policy meant to diminish the power of some of their wealthiest constituents, or b) passively accepting widespread suffering.

Cognitively speaking, that's an untenable position for them. That's why they avoid it by rejecting the science. There's no way to package the science in a way that avoids this dilemma. It is today's hyper-conservatism, not climate communications, that is ultimately going to have to change.

Let me finish by broadening the point a bit: The anti-government dogma of contemporary conservatives isn't just ill-suited to climate change. It's ill-suited to modernity, to the 21st century. The problems that face humanity now are transnational, incremental, and complex (think, e.g., global pandemics) and will inevitably require active national governments and some form of global cooperation. The paranoid revanchism of today's American right is a relic, a circus act, not a serious response to the world we live in. That is not the responsibility of climate hawks and there's little they can do to change it, no matter how they communicate. It's just going to have to burn itself out. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+1 # politicaleconomist 2013-08-17 10:13
not all revenue neutral rebate plans are created equal
The revenue neutral plans proposed are not tied to job creation
Giving workers 1 dollar per hour for each 2 dollar in gasoline tax is the cornerstone of a proper rebate plan that might sell, increasing the payment per hour from 2 dollars per hour to 5 or 6 per hour over a few years (with taxes rising from 4 to 10 or 12 per gallon). Other carbon axes would be priced accordingly with rebates on a per person or per adult basis as usually suggested. Oil prices would fall so that the price to consumers would not rise by much less than the full amount of the tax. Energy independence would be achieved in a relatively short time so that military expenditures could fall, appealing to both liberals and conservatives.
The macroeconomic and microeconomic benefits to the economy and particularly the job market are obvious.

+15 # brianf 2013-08-17 10:38
It must seem unfair to conservatives that reality has a liberal bias. But it's not reality's fault. Conservatives only have themselves to blame. They base which parts of reality they are willing to accept on their political and philosophical beliefs. Most people have a tendency to do this sometimes, but with many conservatives it is a compulsion.

I think that most deniers began from a political stance. Conservatives have generally seen environmentalis ts as their enemies for at least the past half century. Environmentalis ts were naturally worried about the dangers climate change poses to the environment and life, and that alone was enough to make most conservatives see the science itself as a political enemy.

Conservatives often try to make scientific arguments, but anyone who has studied climate science will quickly see that 99% of them know very little about the science, and those who do know something have very skewed views based on selected parts of the data and use reasoning fashioned to reinforce their beliefs.

Even many conservatives with scientific training do this. In fact, some of them are among the worst abusers of logic and the scientific method.

If they could only see how crazy they look, inventing absurd conspiracy theories, assuming every lie told by the right-wing media is true without investigating, refusing to even look at the mountains of evidence against their position. But they can't see it. They have made themselves blind.
+1 # 6thextinction 2013-08-17 10:52
David Roberts is the wisest, most articulate global warming expert today, and he understands human nature and U.S. politics besides.
His very short video on GW proves it;
+3 # universlman 2013-08-17 11:01
The rambling set-up for Roberts' hopeless conclusion assumes that the nutball conservatives will eventually get-it, and then self-deport, presumably into the Stand-Your-Grou nd Party, and the GOP can recover in rehab.

Those conservatives that fear science, embrace child-like explanations for massive environmental change, and ignore or persecute anyone considered an atheist, will remain in power and continue to get it wrong. They are the majority. With the sound of the word “environment,” the conservative mind shuts-down for any possible constructive conversation. For fifteen years of behaving more like a council of fanatic jihadist mullahs than an opposition party, the GOP had better adjust to a little more reflection on many fronts.
+3 # maverita 2013-08-17 11:37
republicans have to deny climate change because to do otherwise threatens their entire wold view which is based on heirarchical thinking that has held prominence since plato. their ideas and ideologies are top down authoritative vs holistic and pluralistic. the only solution is to make it culturally shameful to be so short sighted and selfish. or wait for all the old farts to die off. which might not work very well. in their last ditch efforts to survive conservatives are making a big push to institutionaliz e their systems thru privitization, tort reform, courts, voter suppression and redistricting. keep the outrage fresh front and center.
+4 # fredboy 2013-08-17 11:59
Yes, if it can be proven to be more profitable than destroying the planet that sustains all of us.

Money trumps life itself in this equation.
+5 # TCinLA 2013-08-17 12:07
The problem is that the modern "conservative" movement is not actually conservative. Its roots go back 60 years to the people who believed McCarthy, and to the Goldater campaign 50 years ago, now married to absolutist fundamentalist religion which completely denies science when it conflicts with literalist interpretations of the bible. These people really do believe God promised not to use floods again.

"conserve" is the root of both conservation and conservative, but these people don't get that because they are "pseudo conservative," as Richard Hofstadter described them way back in 1964: "a man who, in the name of defending conservative values against largely imaginary threats, consciously or unconsciously aims to abolish them."
+2 # Regina 2013-08-17 17:05
"Conservative" is the misnomer that "right"-wingers apply to themselves. The more valid term is "reactionary" -- for their negativity against all aspects of progress. Their party-wide "NO" on every proposed item of legislation is symptomatic of their intransigence.
0 # economagic 2013-08-17 22:15
Quoting TCinLA:
The problem is that the modern "conservative" movement is not actually conservative. Its roots go back 60 years to the people who believed McCarthy, and to the Goldater campaign 50 years ago, now married to absolutist fundamentalist religion which completely denies science when it conflicts with literalist interpretations of the bible. These people really do believe God promised not to use floods again.

"conserve" is the root of both conservation and conservative, but these people don't get that because they are "pseudo conservative," as Richard Hofstadter described them way back in 1964: "a man who, in the name of defending conservative values against largely imaginary threats, consciously or unconsciously aims to abolish them."

Thank you. I began using the term, "pseudo-conserv ative," at about the same time without having read Hofstadter. But I used it as meaning "intending to conserve only one's own position of power and privilege," like Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats of 1948, which I have come to realize is not so far from the actual historical meaning of "conservative." My bad, and my loss for being such an ignoramus w/r/t history (though apparently not quite as ignorant as the "average American").

Mr. Roberts seems pretty well informed about climate science, less so about politics and fundamentalisms , and I would have thought most readers of Grist understood all this. Texas Aggie also seems to get it.
+5 # reiverpacific 2013-08-17 13:11
Conservatives maybe (I know a few reasonable con's who acknowledge climate change), reactionaries -never. The reactionary right has no word such as 'proven facts' in their blinkered vocabularies.
As for Pish Limpballs, he's a right one to speak about Christians and anything moral, the ol' drug gulper and habitual Latina prostitute patronizing (and I'll bet abusing). But he'll say anything he's paid so well to babble.
He's a pretty pathetic lump of humanity and can't possibly be happy, for all his money and shrinking number of 'Dittohead' groupies.
+8 # Texas Aggie 2013-08-17 14:03
The problem seems to be that what now passes for conservative isn't what the word used to mean. A couple generations ago, scientists were evenly distributed between conservatives and liberals. Now they are over 90% liberal.

It isn't that scientists' attitudes have changed, but rather the definition of liberal/conserv ative has changed. Scientists by definition deal with reality, and what used to be a conservative had no problem with reality. Therefore scientists could also be conservatives.

Now the situation has changed, and a conservative is defined as someone who supports corporate profits over public welfare. When it becomes necessary to deny reality in order to support corporate profits, and that is invariably the case, then that is exactly what they do. They have left the realm of reality and are now faith based (the influx of right wing christianists has only made the problem worse) so that they cannot accept science based anything.

That means that any message based on reality is immediately rejected by "conservatives. " As the article makes clear, as long as these jerks are in power, there is not a whole lot that can be done. Even the public health aspect doesn't move them because they care more for defending corporations than they do about the health and well-being of their kids. They just deny that their kids are suffering and will suffer the same way they deny that burning fossil fuel has anything to do with the present extreme weather events.
+5 # tinkertoodle 2013-08-17 15:09
Unfortunately congress is bought and paid for and the right wingers refuse to accept any idea of climate change I don't know if it's so much their ideology as it is the big bucks big oil lines their pockets with money talks the only way we can ever hope to try to tackle this is to vote these nutcase tea baggers out unfortunately there's a lot of people who believe the disinformation out right lies they spread and until the public gets educated there's little hope of voting them out because people will vote blindly vote against their own interests
0 # mdhome 2013-08-18 23:32
We should have learned to start the path to renewables when we had gas lines under President Carter and he put solar panels on the roof of the white house. He had the right idea, but Reagan tore it down and said essentially lets see how much carbon we can put in the air.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.