Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Climate change denial

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been running a number of articles recently dealing with science denial. Steven Cohen and Alison Miller, both of the Columbia Earth Institute, write in Climate change 2011: A status report on US policy Jan/Feb 2012 about the partisan divide on climate change science:

It is impossible to deny or ignore the growing partisan divide that has profoundly influenced the US climate debate, making it more polarized even as climate science has become more definitive. Last year, a Gallup poll found that in 2010, only 30 percent of self-identified Republicans believed the effects of global warming were already beginning, a drop from almost 50 percent in 2007. The percentage of convinced Democrats, however, remained at 70 percent or higher during the same period, according to Gallup. A Pew Research Center poll in October 2010 found similar results highlighting the partisan divide, reporting a 40 percentage point difference between Republicans and Democrats believing evidence that the Earth is warming (Marshall, 2010).
The demographics within the Republican Party on climate science denial are particularly interesting:

The division remains even after factoring in education. A 2011 study found that, among Democrats and liberals, levels of education had a strong correlation with not only a belief in climate science, but with individual concern about global warming; however, that same study found the opposite effect in the case of Republicans and conservatives (Hoffman, 2011). This persistent gap suggests that climate change has become an ideological issue - much like gun control, taxes, or regulation - that defines what it means to be a Republican or Democrat (Nisbet, 2009). The US divide over climate change involves more than just an understanding of climate science. [my emphasis]
It's become a "tribal" issue, in other words, a psychological identifier.

But "education" in such surveys can be misleading. Because education also correlates with higher income on the average. This could also suggest that the more affluent Republicans are more willing than working class voters in the Republican base to disregard the dangers of climate change, which wouldn't be surprising. Because money talks, and the climate science denial position is virtually all money talking:

The fossil fuel industry has caused much of the political division on climate change through aggressive action to promote skepticism among the public; the industry, typically through conservative think tanks, has funded opposing scientific opinions, economic reports, and public relations campaigns. For example, in 2005 Chris Mooney of Mother Jones found 40 ExxonMobil-funded organizations that either sought to undermine mainstream scientific findings on climate change or maintained affiliations with a small group of skeptic scientists (Mooney, 2005). Furthermore, some climate scientists may have contributed to the political divide by moving past their knowledge of climate change to predict socioeconomic impacts and propose policy solutions that go beyond the scope of climate data and models. This combination of science, policy, and advocacy can undermine non-expert confidence in climate science.
And, in typical authoritarian projection, climate science deniers argue that scientists who do study climate change are mostly corrupted by the pursuit of grant money, which they apparently supposed flows from the fount of what they call Political Correctness, by which they mean stuff they think is politically incorrect. (No wonder they get confused!)

Conservatives opposing anti-pollution regulations have always argued that they represented more gubment regulation that allegedly hurts the economy. Climate science denial is their tool for working concern over global climate change into that long-established partisan and ideological framework:

But it seems climate skeptics are concerned about the validity of climate change mostly because of its implications for regulation of business. The effort to regulate greenhouse gases would eventually entail some level of government regulation of many aspects of daily life, from the cars Americans drive to the electricity that powers their homes and businesses. Those who are wary of big government dislike this potential intrusion.

Critics of climate regulation argue that it will pose an impossible burden on businesses and stifle a weak economy through higher energy prices. At least in the Republican Party, political dialogue throughout 2011 was dominated by the message that government wastes money and takes on duties that should be left to the private sector. Emboldened by electoral gains in 2010, conservatives and Tea Partiers continue to emphasize that government is the problem and an unregulated free market is the solution.
Since more affluent/better educated Republicans tend to give more emphasis to such economic concerns than to the "values issues" like abortion and general hostility to women's rights, that's consistent with the poll findings that better educated Republican are hotter for climate science denial. (Bad pun, I know ...)

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