Can Climate Science Be Rendered Conservative-Friendly?

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) at a March 2011 press conference.

This story first appeared on Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

One 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 seem to, what it means to accept the science.

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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.

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