August 5, 2009

Symbolic Belief and Climate Change

David Roberts asks a pertinent question: How can we can have a debate over what to do about climate change when most conservatives don't think climate change is even a problem? He writes:
You might think this would make for short debates. Conservatives could collectively sign on to a one-line op-ed:

"We do not believe in anthropogenic climate change, thus we do not support legislation to address it."

Period. Done. Right? But that doesn’t happen. Instead you get peculiarities like [Sarah] Palin, droning on for 700 words about how the legislation is flawed because it doesn’t promote domestic fossil fuel without once mentioning carbon emissions or climate change. You get [George] Will analyzing the challenges of international climate negotiations and then mentioning, almost casually, at the end of his piece, "by the way, climate change isn’t real."


There will never be a policy proposal sensible enough to gain support from people who do not acknowledge the problem the proposal is meant to address. You’d think that fact would merit notice!
It's not uncommon for people (pundits, anyway) to make political arguments for disingenuous reasons. For years, Republicans advocated that tax cuts, especially for the rich, would actually increase government revenue -- a funny thing to claim, given the GOP's reputation as the party of less government. But directly calling for cutting government spending, much of which is popular, is a political non-starter, so Republicans resorted to off-kilter arguments like the Laffer Curve to advance their agenda.

In a similar vein, I think Julian Sanchez's recent post on the Birther phenomenon illustrates that there's a sort of instrumental value to certain political beliefs -- including, and perhaps especially, those that aren't grounded in fact. A large number of Republicans seem to have embraced a nonsensical belief about Barack Obama, but the number of people who embrace it deeply enough to actually do something about it (e.g., Orly Taitz) is likely very few. Mostly (or so Sanchez thinks) it's a way to express their displeasure at Obama being President. Believing the worst about one's political opponents is an age-old tradition -- I've succumbed to it myself -- and conspiracy theories like Birtherism are hallmarks of that tradition.

What does this have to do with climate change and climate change deniers? Well, let me put it this way. I'm not a climate scientist, but like most people, I accept the scientific consensus on climate change. I accept it in the same way I accept that relativity and quantum mechanics best explain the physical universe and that evolution best explains the diversity of life on earth: I'm conversant in the theories, but I'm not an expert in the way that, say, the authors of RealClimate are. To the extent that I can speak knowledgeably about climate change and what to do about it, it's because I'm standing on the shoulders of giants.

Now it could be that the IPCC (and NASA, and NOAA, and the National Academy of Sciences, etc.) are wrong, and the earth isn't warming. And it could also be true that relativity is wrong, and quantum mechanics is wrong, and evolution is wrong too. But the evidence that we have for all those things is quite strong, to the point where they don't really have competitors, in the way that the particle and wave theories of light competed from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Similarly, in the case of climate change, the debate among scientists is no longer whether it's happening, but about the range of possible effects:

If you're a conservative, who believes that government can do no right, and you're presented with the information about climate change, a problem which transcends the ability of the private sector to address it, you can do one of two things. You can either agree with it, but argue that responding to it doesn't entail the kind of government intervention that liberals are calling for -- this is what Jim Manzi and others have done. Or, like George Will, Sarah Palin, and countless more, you can cherry-pick for contrary evidence, speculate about a conspiracy to suppress dissenting voices, or just ignore the issue altogether.

So why has there been so much more of the latter than the former? To loop this back to where I started, I think a lot of conservatives' opinions on global warming are essentially symbolic beliefs, adopted largely because they are positioning themselves in opposition to liberals. Consider, for example, the Pew survey from last year, which found that Republican support for the proposition that the earth is warming declined by 13 percent from 2007 to 2008 (Democratic and independent support also fell, but by insignificant amounts). Given that this happened when Democrats regained control of Congress and made a first attempt at passing global warming legislation, I would venture that the shift in opinion among Republicans didn't have much to do with a reappraisal of the science.

Of course, I could be wrong about all this: Is my belief that the earth is warming a dispassionate read of the evidence, or a way for me to fulfill my earnest liberal desire to meddle in people's lives? I don't think so, obviously, and I appealed to my belief in other aspects of science as a way to justify my layman's opinion on the subject. And by no means am I saying that my opinions on climate change policy are above reproach, or that conservative's opinions on the same are as without merit as the Birthers. In short, I'm saying (rather badly) that the persistence of climate change deniers among conservatives should be seen as a sort of marker of political identity. That that political identity is so relentlessly anti-science, and that it has such a hold on a major political party, is rather disturbing.

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