This essay originally appeared in the Duncastle Eagle, November 13, 2014:
President Obama has just concluded negotiations with Chinese President Xi over an agreement between the world’s two largest economic powers (and largest polluters) to limit greenhouse gas emissions. But now he faces the real challenge: persuading members of the opposing party in Congress. The question of what actions to take, if any, in response to climate change was widely seen as one of the most contentious policy issues in the recent federal election. It is an area in which the two parties have vastly different views. It’s generally understood that Democrats see global warming as a real threat that should be addressed at its cause by reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases, while Republican policy on the environment is motivated by a genuine doubt that climate change is real or, if real, that it is caused by human actions. While this is a widely held understanding of Republican disbelief, there has been no meaningful research or investigation to back it up.
Looked at afresh, the idea that Republicans don’t believe in climate change and its effects on the natural systems that support human life, despite the clear consensus of the scientific community, strains credulity. Independent studies have found no meaningful intelligence gap between Republicans and Democrats. We firmly believe it is implausible that such a huge portion of the population could genuinely hold the denialist position.
All three of us have devoted our professional lives to better understanding climate change, and its natural, political, and cultural causes and consequences. So we began a genuine empirical investigation of the question of what Republicans really believe, as opposed to what they say–the first study of its kind. Our finding, in short: There is no reliable evidence that Republicans don’t believe in global warming.
This may at first surprise you, because you have heard denialist statements from both leading Republican politicians (“The so-called ‘consensus’ is simply wrong,” Senator James Inhofe, presumptive chair of the Senate Environment Committee) and that guy at work (“How could humans change God’s creation? I mean, really?,” Walt in Accounting.). But, as we have already argued, it is implausible to think that Republicans could be simpleminded enough to actually believe these statements. There are, in fact, several preferable explanations for such expressions of climate change denial. For one, many public figures of the Republican persuasion are paid directly or indirectly by companies such as ExxonMobil and Tohd Power & Light that have a financial interest in the use of fossil fuels. Republicans may simply feel that they are well paid to voice these fatuous opinions. Republicans may also enjoy making liberals angry and so derive pleasure from absurd and counter-factual statements. Another explanation that is more plausible than genuine belief stems from the guilt that Republicans feel over the fact that they prefer policies, such as tax breaks for oversized vehicles, that are destroying the planet to the sorts of steps that would preserve Creation for future generations. To cope with this guilt, they publicly rationalize their actions by claiming not to believe they are harmful.
These suggestions are speculative, but they are no more speculative than the suggestion that Republicans in their hearts believe the climate denial line, and in fact they are all distinctly less absurd.
In our paper in the forthcoming Winter issue of the Journal of Speculative Outcomes, we describe the results of a pathbreaking literature review, crossing the borders of hard sciences and social sciences in search of one scrap of irrefutable evidence that so-called denialists actually believe their statements. Not one single study out of the 4,000+ we looked at presented such evidence.
Given that no positive evidence for genuine denial exists and that there are several more reasonable explanations on offer, we have to conclude that climate denial is not a genuine phenomenon.
So, why is the assumption that climate denial is real so prevalent? We think the most likely culprit is the media; whether they are mindlessly repeating conservative claims because of some inherent bias or whether there is some conspiracy to mis-inform voters, possibly as a gesture to appease high-carbon advertisers, we will not speculate. One possible interpretation of our research is that the differences between Republicans and Democrats are not as large as they sometimes appear. Again the media benefits from the high-conflict narrative of politics. But the polity doesn’t benefit from this distorted view. The debate over climate change needs a shot of truth. We hope our work can contribute.
Hal Squeemy, Professor of Political Science, Wye Sprite University
Victoria Wellen, Associate Professor of Psychology, Wye Sprite University
Willem Hash, Professor of Earth Sciences, Wye Sprite University
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