Republicans and climate denial: why ideology is at the root of the problem

Why are so many U.S. Republicans climate deniers? For many liberals and left-wing activists the problem really comes down to conservatism itself. When climate deniers are overwhelmingly conservative it’s not surprising that many people feel this way.

However, there is nothing inherent in the conservative position or the conservative philosophy that would lead one to question climate change or the credentials of scientists who study it.

One scientist has actually looked into this question. Sondre Båtstrand, a researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway, published a study last August in the journal Politics and Policy comparing the climate change policies of nine different conservative parties from the US, the UK, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Germany.

What Båtstrand’s paper, “More than Markets: A Comparative Study of Nine Conservative Parties on Climate Change,” found is that the U.S. Republican Party is alone in its opposition to climate science.

“Although conservative parties are portrayed as skeptical toward adopting climate measures or even supposed to ignore climate change … most of them support climate measures, even in the form of state interventions in the market economy,” said Båtstrand.

The U.S. Republican Party, he argues, “is an anomaly” in its denial of anthropogenic climate change.

Even a cursory look at the current GOP field vying for the White House would seem to confirm Båtstrand’s point. Donald Trump, for instance, does not believe that climate change is a serious problem. According to Trump, climate change is “very low on the list” of things we need to be worrying about.

While he accepts the climate is changing, he does not believe human activity is primarily responsible: “I believe there’s change, and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again. And it changes depending on years and centuries, but I am not a believer, and we have much bigger problems,” Trump said.

Jeb Bush feels likewise: “I don’t think the science is clear on what percentage is man-made and … what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant.”

For Ben Carson, however, he rejects the scientific consensus on climate change outright: “there is no overwhelming science that the things that are going on are man-caused and not naturally caused. Gimme a break.”

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On the Paris climate talks, which took place last December, Marco Rubio denounced them as “ridiculous” and argued that even if we were to adopt drastic measures to offset our impact on the climate it would have little to no effect except to damage the economy:

“We are not going to make America a harder place to create jobs in order to pursue policies that will do absolutely nothing, nothing to change our climate, to change our weather,” Rubio said.

Chris Christie, John Kasich and Mike Huckabee have all made similar remarks to that effect. The most sensible or reasonable position I’ve yet seen to come out of the current crop of GOP candidates is Rand Paul.

During a debate last November, he accepted that there is a problem and that human activity is partly to blame for it but argued that the policies we pursue need to be sensible:

“While I do think that man may have a role in our climate, I think nature also has a role … We’ve been through geologic age after geologic age. We’ve had times when the temperatures been warmer, we’ve had times when the temperatures been colder. We’ve had times when the carbon in the atmosphere’s been higher. So, I think we need to look before we leap,” Paul said.

When we look at these statements it is clear that the Republican Party is united on this issue. They simply refuse to accept that human activity is primarily responsible for the increasingly rapid expansion of the greenhouse effect.

This leads us to ask the following question: is climate denial inherent to the conservative mindset, American Republicanism or is it something else entirely?

Before we answer that, we should perhaps make a careful but necessary distinction. A climate denier is someone who rejects the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. This does not mean, however, that climate deniers are anti-environment. It would be a stretch to say that climate deniers are indifferent to their natural surroundings or the earth’s plant and animal diversity.

I think most climate deniers would prefer, given the chance, to live in clean cities where the parks are nice and the water is safe to drink. But this reasonable everyday preference does not seem to make its way into the bigger long-term picture for many U.S. conservatives.

The accusation most liberals and left-wingers resort to is that American conservatives are simply the pawns of big business — they are only concerned to protect the interests of billionaires and the fossil fuel industry.

Its a tempting argument to make but it gets us nowhere in trying to solve the question before us: why is the Republican Party, as opposed to conservative parties in general, a virtual anomaly on this issue?

According to Dana Nuccitelli, a writer for the Guardian newspaper, the answer lies not in U.S. conservatism or even conservatism per se but in the nature of partisan politics.

“The Republican Party is no longer the party of Reagan, who listened to scientists and signed an international agreement to curb pollution that was causing the hole in the ozone layer,” Nuccitelli said.

“When voting against Democrats, today’s Republican legislators are more united than at any time in the past century. And it’s clear from the language the Republican Party leaders use that they view climate change not as a scientific or critical risk management issue, but rather as a Democrat issue. Thus, Republican leaders simply can’t accept the need to address climate change, because that would put the on the same side of an issue as Democrats.”

Nuccitelli makes a compelling argument but I think her case is only partially or half true. When Republicans discuss climate change, they often frame the debate around opposing the radical left.
Rubio, for example, said during a debate that “the decisions that the left want us to make … will make America a more expensive place to create jobs.”

Chris Christie, at the same debate, argued that “we shouldn’t be destroying our economy in order to chase some wild, left-wing idea that somehow, us, by ourselves, are going to fix the climate.”

When we look at these statements, what we find I think is the root of the problem: Republicans sincerely believe that Democrats are driving a radical left-wing agenda. They are using climate change as a pretext to attack the free-market.

This presents us with a unique challenge. We keep thinking that facts will win the day. But no matter how often the evidence is presented or in what way, our opponents refuse to budge. What drives their opposition, ultimately, is not their climate skepticism but their belief that an ideological war is being waged against capitalism and the American economy.

This isn’t true but its this perception and this ideology that we have to defeat — to go on dismissing climate deniers as the party of the one per cent, the stooges and pawns of big business or for simply being conservative is a sign of intellectual laziness. If we’re going to make headway on this front I think we can do better than this.

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