Bad science: Global-warming deniers are a liability to the conservative cause
NationalPost.com – Full Comment
July 15, 2010. Jonathan Kay
Have you heard about the “growing number” of eminent scientists who reject the theory that man-made greenhouse gases are increasing the earth’s temperature? It’s one of those factoids that, for years, has been casually dropped into the opening paragraphs of conservative manifestos against climate-change treaties and legislation. A web site maintained by the office of a U.S. Senator has for years instructed us that a “growing number of scientists” are becoming climate-change “skeptics.” This year, the chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation gave a speech praising the “growing number of distinguished scientists [who are] challenging the conventional wisdom with alternative theories and peer reviewed research.” In this newspaper, a columnist recently described the “growing skepticism about the theory of man-made climate change.” Surely, the conventional wisdom is on the cusp of being overthrown entirely: Another colleague proclaimed that we are approaching “the church of global warming’s Galileo moment.”
Fine-sounding rhetoric — but all of it nonsense. In a new article published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, a group of scholars from Stanford University, the University of Toronto and elsewhere provide a statistical breakdown of the opinions of the world’s most prominent climate experts. Their conclusion: The group that is skeptical of the evidence of man-made global warming “comprises only 2% of the top 50 climate researchers as ranked by expertise (number of climate publications), 3% of researchers in the top 100, and 2.5% of the top 200, excluding researchers present in both groups … This result closely agrees with expert surveys, indicating that [about] 97% of self-identified actively publishing climate scientists agree with the tenets of [man-made global warming].”
How has this tiny 2-3% sliver of fringe opinion been reinvented as a perpetually “growing” share of the scientific community? Most climate-change deniers (or “skeptics,” or whatever term one prefers) tend to inhabit militantly right-wing blogs and other Internet echo chambers populated entirely by other deniers. In these electronic enclaves — where a smattering of citations to legitimate scientific authorities typically is larded up with heaps of add-on commentary from pundits, economists and YouTube jesters who haven’t any formal training in climate sciences — it becomes easy to swallow the fallacy that the whole world, including the respected scientific community, is jumping on the denier bandwagon.
This is a phenomenon that should worry not only environmentalists, but also conservatives themselves: The conviction that global warming is some sort of giant intellectual fraud now has become a leading bullet point within mainstream North American conservatism; and so has come to bathe the whole movement in its increasingly crankish, conspiratorial glow.
Conservatives often pride themselves on their hard-headed approach to public-policy — in contradistinction to liberals, who generally are typecast as fuzzy-headed utopians. Yet when it comes to climate change, many conservatives I know will assign credibility to any stray piece of junk science that lands in their inbox … so long as it happens to support their own desired conclusion. (One conservative columnist I know formed her skeptical views on global warming based on testimonials she heard from novelist Michael Crichton.) The result is farcical: Impressionable conservatives who lack the numeracy skills to perform long division or balance their checkbooks feel entitled to spew elaborate proofs purporting to demonstrate how global warming is in fact caused by sunspots or flatulent farm animals. Or they will go on at great length about how “climategate” has exposed the whole global-warming phenomenon as a charade — despite the fact that a subsequent investigation exculpated research investigators from the charge that they had suppressed temperature data. (In fact, “climategate” was overhyped from the beginning, since the scientific community always had other historical temperature data sets at its disposal — that maintained by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, most notably — entirely independent of the Climactic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, where the controversy emerged.)
Let me be clear: Climate-change denialism does not comprise a conspiracy theory, per se: Those aforementioned 2% of eminent scientists prove as much. I personally know several denialists whom I generally consider to be intelligent and thoughtful. But the most militant denialists do share with conspiracists many of the same habits of mind. Oxford University scholar Steve Clarke and Brian Keeley of Washington University have defined conspiracy theories as those worldviews that trace important events to a secretive, nefarious cabal; and whose proponents consistently respond to contrary facts not by modifying their hypothesis, but instead by insisting on the existence of ever-wider circles of high-level conspirators controlling most or all parts of society. This describes, more or less, how radicalized warming deniers treat the subject of their obsession: They see global warming as a Luddite plot hatched by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Al Gore to destroy industrial society. And whenever some politician, celebrity or international organization expresses support for the all-but-unanimous view of the world’s scientific community, they inevitably will respond with a variation of “Ah, so they’ve gotten to them, too.”
In support of this paranoid approach, the denialists typically will rely on stray bits of discordant information — an incorrect reference in a UN report, a suspicious-seeming “climategate” email, some hypocrisy or other from a bien-pensant NGO type — to argue that the whole theory is an intellectual house of cards. In these cases, one can’t help but be reminded of the folks who point out the fluttering American flag in the moon-landing photos, or the “umbrella man” from the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination.
In part, blame for all this lies with the Internet, whose blog-from-the-hip ethos has convinced legions of pundits that their view on highly technical matters counts as much as peer-reviewed scientific literature. But there is something deeper at play, too — a basic psychological instinct that public-policy scholars refer to as the “cultural cognition thesis,” described in a recently published academic paper as the observed principle that “individuals tend to form perceptions of risk that reflect and reinforce one or another idealized vision of how society should be organized … Thus, generally speaking, persons who subscribe to individualistic values tend to dismiss claims of environmental risks, because acceptance of such claims implies the need to regulate markets, commerce and other outlets for individual strivings.”
In simpler words, too many of us treat science as subjective — something we customize to reduce cognitive dissonance between what we think and how we live.
In the case of global warming, this dissonance is especially traumatic for many conservatives, because they have based their whole worldview on the idea that unfettered capitalism — and the asphalt-paved, gas-guzzling consumer culture it has spawned — is synonymous with both personal fulfillment and human advancement. The global-warming hypothesis challenges that fundamental dogma, perhaps fatally.
The appropriate intellectual response to that challenge — finding a way to balance human consumption with responsible environmental stewardship — is complicated and difficult. It will require developing new technologies, balancing carbon-abatement programs against other (more cost-effective) life-saving projects such as disease-prevention, and — yes — possibly increasing the economic cost of carbon-fuel usage through some form of direct or indirect taxation. It is one of the most important debates of our time. Yet many conservatives have made themselves irrelevant in it by simply cupping their hands over their ears and screaming out imprecations against Al Gore.
Rants and slogans may help conservatives deal with the emotional problem of cognitive dissonance. But they aren’t the building blocks of a serious ideological movement. And the impulse toward denialism must be fought if conservatism is to prosper in a century when environmental issues will assume an ever greater profile on this increasingly hot, parched, crowded planet. Otherwise, the movement will come to be defined — and discredited — by its noisiest cranks and conspiracists.