“Human kind … cannot bear very much reality.” —T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
It’s been over a year since polling data found that climate change has emerged as America’s most polarizing political issue. The survey, conducted by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, found that the divisiveness characterizing the climate debate is so strong it has eclipsed such longstanding hot-button issues as gun control, evolution, the d eath penalty and even abortion. And with President Obama recently making an historic visit to Alaska to speak about the urgency of acting on climate change just as Republicans strive to derail his climate agenda, there is little sign that the climate gap separating the nation’s two major parties will be bridged any time soon.
In 2009, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans’ views about the state of science and its impact on society. They concluded that “the strongest correlate of opinion on climate change is partisan affiliation.” Two-thirds of Republicans (67 percent) believe that global warming isn’t actually happening—or if it is, it’s not from man-made causes. By contrast, most Democrats (64 percent) say the planet is heating up mainly due to humans.
Climate change should not be this polarizing: Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s climate arm, reported that scientists are more than 95 percent certain that the primary cause of global warming is human activity.
American Pipe Dream
When it comes to the general election, the climate issue poses an electoral problem for the Republicans: A majority of Americans say they are more likely to support political candidates who promise to tackle climate change, according to a recent poll. Conducted by the New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future, the poll found that two-thirds of Americans say they would support candidates who promised to take action to combat climate change. Almost half of Republicans (48 percent) say the same thing. The poll also found that a solid majority of U.S. voters, 83 percent, believe global warming poses a serious threat to the world.
While there is climate denial across the globe, this anti-science stance is a particularly American phenomenon. In the U.S., elected GOP climate deniers are commonplace; several of them are seeking the presidency. It’s a different story in other industrualized nations. “In Europe, climate change denial is seen as the preserve of the crackpot,” writes London-based finance and economics writer Imogen Reed. “Few political figures or members of the news media would dream of mentioning it, as doing so often receives the same contempt from the European public as denying the Holocaust.”
Even citizens of emerging countries are more attuned to the realities of global warming. The 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project found that the majority of consumers in China (91 percent), India (73 percent) and South Korea (71 percent) are willing to pay higher prices to address climate change. Not so in America, where a mere 38 percent of consumers would do the same. “In this sentiment, people in the U.S. are out of step with the world,” the report’s authors write. “In most of the countries surveyed people are more likely than Americans to be willing to pay for efforts to slow global warming.”
“In this sentiment, people in the US are out of step with the world,” according to the Pew survey. “In most of the countries surveyed people are more likely than Americans to be willing to pay for efforts to slow global warming.”
The GOP’s climate denial, buoyed by a massive social, financial and political machine oiled by conservative think-tanks and activist groups, has created a potentially disastrous situation in which climate change—arguably the most pressing global issue of our time—has also become the most polarizing topic in the nation whose leadership is absolutely critical to finding a solution. While Obama committed to an 83 percent reduction in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2050, that goal faces a massive hurdle: a rich and powerful Republican machine that seeks to dismantle the president’s climate agenda. With the two major parties locked in a seemingly intractable adversarial stance on the topic, truly meaningful action seems almost like a pipe dream.
If it is a dream, it’s because the GOP refuses to accept reality. The Carsey poll found that party-line gaps on science-related questions “equal or surpass those of historically divisive social issues.” The division is primarily driven by the Republicans, 70 percent of whom don’t believe in global warming. This position stands in stark contrast to the world’s scientists, 97 percent of whom agree that global warming has occurred in the last century. Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who conducted the Carsey poll, wrote that the findings represent “a changing political landscape in which scientific ideas and information that are accepted by most scientists are, nevertheless, highly controversial.”
The controversy is fueled in part by misinformation coming from the media. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released its analysis of 2013 climate coverage by the three major American cable news networks. The researchers confirmed what most environmentalists had already guessed: Fox News leads the pack in climate misinformation. The right-wing mouthpiece presented misleading statements in almost three out of every four (72 percent) of its climate-related segments. Bucking that trend is Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who has acknowledged anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change, though he is one of very few voices at the network to do so.
But Fox can’t take all the blame; a third of CNN segments contained misleading statements as well. UCS offered a suggestion: “The biggest step that CNN could take to increase accuracy is to stop hosting debates about established climate science and instead focus debates on whether and how to respond to climate change through climate policy.” MSNBC was the most accurate of the three, at 8 percent.
“The public deserves climate coverage that gets the science right,” say the UCS report’s authors. “Media outlets can do more to foster a fact-based conversation about climate change and policies designed to address it, rather than contributing to a broken and inaccurate debate about the established facts of climate science.”
Network television news has also done a terrible job covering climate change. In March, Miles Grant, senior communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation, wrote about the failure of the three major networks to properly report on the extreme weather that battered the U.S. early this year:
In recent weeks, network television news has understandably focused extensively on the extreme cold and snow in the Northeast and upper Midwest. But a new FAIR [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting] study shows they’ve almost completely ignored a related and even more dangerous phenomenon out West: record-shattering winter warmth. And they’ve overwhelmingly failed to discuss what connects the two sets of strange weather phenomena: human-caused climate disruption.
The study looked at ABC, CBS and NBC transcripts from January 25 (as storm Juno approached the Northeast) through March 4. They found that while 417 network segments mentioned the extreme cold, only seven (barely over 1 percent) referenced climate change, even though scientists have already made the link. As Juno bore down on the U.S., National Center for Atmospheric Research climatologist Kevin Trenberth told the Guardian, “You can end up with heavier snows in part because of climate change.”
Follow the Money
It’s bad enough that the media is not properly covering climate change, and when they do, much of the coverage is rife with wrong information. But efforts to inform the public with peer-reviewed scientific research and stimulate legislative action on the climate issue are also being stymied by the millions of dollars spent on lobbying against President Obama’s climate efforts and supporting climate denial.
In June, the Guardian published the findings of its analysis of annual tax filings made to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service by the Donor’s Trust and Donor’s Capital Fund (DT and DCF, together known as the “Dark Money ATM” of the conservative movement). The Guardian found that these funds—which cannot be traced to individuals—directed around $125 million over three years to groups “spreading disinformation about climate science and committed to wrecking Barack Obama’s climate change plan.”
In a separate analysis, DeSmog, a website focusing on global warming misinformation campaigns, examined tax records to reveal that between 2005 and 2012, DT and DCF, both of which share an address in Virginia, received $479 million of dark money from individuals or groups that do not have to declare their donations. Moreover, a Greenpeace analysis found that between 2002 and 2013, DCF gave $16 million to the Heartland Institute, which hosts regular conferences for climate deniers and once likened people who believed in climate change science to mass murderers.
“The conservative think tanks are really the spearhead of the conservative assault on climate change,” said Riley Dunlap, a University of Oklahoma sociologist who helped establish the field of environmental sociology in the 1970s. “They write books, put out briefings and open editorials, bring in contrarian scientists. …They are an immense megaphone that amplifies very, very minority voices.”
“All these corporations that were getting bad press realized they can still fund conservative think tanks,” said Dunlap. “Exxon or BP can still fund one of these things while doing all these great things on climate change to reduce emissions.” Greenpeace revealed that, between 2005 and 2008, ExxonMobil spent $8.9 million funding the climate denial machine. But that was dwarfed by Koch Industries, which pumped $24.9 million into the effort over the same period.
Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University who first exposed the complex and highly secretive matrix of activist groups and think tanks that comprise the conservative climate change counter-movement, said those funds were used to fine-tune opposition to climate-related regulations. “It is a well-oiled, complicated, cultural and political machine of the right wing of the conservative movement,” he said.
Reading Tea Leaves
While the GOP mainstream has money and media working to promote climate denial and fight climate legislation, the Tea Party has played a unique and significant role in the country’s climate polarization. “While large majorities of Democrats, Independents, and non-Tea Party Republicans say they trust scientists, only 28 percent of Tea Party Republicans trust them,” writes Hamilton, the Carsey poll researcher.
With one in four Americans saying they are Tea Party supporters, that’s nearly 80 million people distrusting science. So it should be no surprise that within the GOP, the Tea Partiers are the most fervent wavers of the climate denial flag. “Tea Party Republicans are least likely to agree with the consensus among scientists that humans are changing the climate, or that humans evolved from earlier life forms in a process that took millions of years,” Hamilton writes. A 2013 Pew poll found that Tea Partiers are the only group of Americans who think the Earth is not warming.
John M. Broder, who reports on energy and environment issues for the Washington bureau of the New York Times, argues that while Tea Partiers may arrive at climate denial from different places, they are unified in their resistance to federal oversight:
Skepticism and outright denial of global warming are among the articles of faith of the Tea Party movement. …For some, it is a matter of religious conviction; for others, it is driven by distrust of those they call the elites. And for others still, efforts to address climate change are seen as a conspiracy to impose world government and a sweeping redistribution of wealth. But all are wary of the Obama administration’s plans to regulate carbon dioxide, a ubiquitous gas, which will require the expansion of government authority into nearly every corner of the economy.
GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Tex.), a Tea Party favorite, has acknowledged that global warming is real, but is vociferous in his belief that it is not man-made. “On the global warming alarmists, anyone who actually points to the evidence that disproves their apocalyptical claims, they don’t engage in reasoned debate,” Cruz said in March. “What do they do? They scream, ‘You’re a denier.’ They brand you a heretic. Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-earthers.” Cruz called for Obama’s new EPA regulations requiring existing power plants to reduce their carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030 to be “invalidated by Congress, struck down by the courts, or rescinded by the next administration.”
But how long will the Tea Party wield influence on the climate debate? Tea Partiers tend to be older than other Republicans (25 percent are 65 or older, compared with 19 percent of other GOP supporters). And since young people overwhelmingly believe that climate change is happening (only 3 percent don’t), perhaps the Tea Party’s ability to shape the climate debate will diminish over time. But by then, it may be too late to do anything about it.
While environmentalists have targeted climate change as a wedge issue that might influence the independent vote, the climate divide is just one part of a larger trend in the United States. An expansive 2014 Pew political polarizaton survey of 10,000 adults nationwide concluded that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive—than at any point in the last two decades.” This deep animosity is extremely worrisome. Since 1994, the percentage of party-affiliated Americans who have a highly negative view of the opposing party has doubled, with the majority of these fiercely partisan voters viewing the opposing party’s policies as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”
Though both parties are fomenting an increasing hatred for each other, it’s the Republicans who must bear the brunt of the blame — even as theirs is the party that more often plays the blame game and harbors more distrust. According to Pew, more conservatives (72 percent) have a “very unfavorable opinion” of Democrats, compared to 53 percent of liberals who share the same view of Republicans. In addition, conservatives are more likely to say that Democratic party policies are a threat to the nation’s well-being.
The Pew authors also note that the so-called “Obama derangement syndrome“—a condition afflicting Republicans who are so hell-bent on thwarting the president that they will even reverse long-held beliefs to do so—is a source of the intense distrust Republicans have for Democratic policies. “At least in part,” they write, “the strongly negative views Republicans have of the Democratic Party reflect their deep-seated dislike of Barack Obama.”
Some have argued that today’s polarization may simply be a return to historic norms. But considering the fact that, as the United Nations warned last year, we are rapidly running out of time to act on climate change, U.S. political gridlock is more dangerous than ever, and exists on a grander scale because the nation’s failure to act on climate directly impacts the rest of the world. In 2013, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere actually increased at the fastest rate in nearly three decades, with the U.S. contributing nearly a seventh of the total amount.
Not only is the world going in the wrong direction, America’s main political parties are going in opposite directions from each other, with no sign that agreement on the climate is in the cards, thanks in most part to GOP obstructionism. As the Pew poll discovered, compromise is essentially a liberal value: Conservatives don’t like it. Less than a third of conservative voters prefer politicians who make compromises, compared with 82 percent of liberals.
Writing in the Altantic in May of last year, Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, laid the blame of the nation’s current political dysfunction squarely in the GOP’s camp:
Republicans have become a radical insurgency—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition. The evidence of this asymmetry is overwhelming.
The Power of Denial
Even more alarming is the fact that the climate denial sown by the GOP machine is, to a certain extent, working. According to a recent study led by University of Bristol cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, the ceaseless public debate over whether climate change is actually happening is making some climate scientists understate their own findings, which unintentionally supports the climate deniers’ position that it is too soon to take aggressive climate action.
“In response to constant, and sometimes toxic, public challenges, scientists have over-emphasized scientific uncertainty, and have inadvertently allowed contrarian claims to affect how they themselves speak, and perhaps even think, about their own research,” writes Lewandowsky in the journal Global Environmental Change. One of the psychological mechanisms behind this, he argues, is pluralistic ignorance, a social phenomenon that occurs when “a minority opinion is given disproportionate prominence in public debate, resulting in the majority of people incorrectly assuming their opinion is marginalized.” So, while climate deniers may be in the minority, the regular coverage of climate denial by Fox News and other conservative media, and perhaps even the lack of climate change coverage by mainstream media, are contributing factors to scientists’ muted approach.
“A public discourse that asserts that the IPCC has exaggerated the threat of climate change,” Lewandoswky points out, “may cause scientists who disagree to think their views are in the minority, and they may therefore feel inhibited from speaking out in public.” Furthermore, the researchers said when offering rebuttals to their critics, scientists often do so “within a linguistic landscape created by denial and often in a manner that reinforces the contrarian claim.”
This assessment supports the UCS analysis of cable news coverage of climate change; specifically of how CNN, an ostensibly centrist network (at least in comparison to Fox), readily offers a soapbox for the climate denial wing. “Most of CNN’s misleading coverage stemmed from debates between guests who accepted established climate science and other guests who disputed it,” write the UCS report’s authors. “This format suggests that established climate science is still widely debated among scientists, which it is not, and also allows opponents of climate policy to convey inaccurate statements about climate science.”
With the media freely giving airtime to climate deniers, GOP presidential candidates feel no inhibition about sharing their particular strain of climate denial with the world. They are joined by growing ranks of Republican politicians of varying levels of anti-science denial, but who agree in their opposition of any policy to combat climate change. “You don’t have to be an outright science denier to try to prevent action on climate change,” said Brulle. “You’ve got gradation — it’s not real; it’s real but we are not sure how much humans are contributing to it; ‘I am not a scientist‘ phrase as a way to avoid the issue while avoiding being labeled an outright denier. There are all sorts of strategies.”
The GOP has done an excellent job at sowing enough doubt to create a political rift that threatens any U.S.-led action on climate change. Even GOP governors have lined up to defy Obama’s new emissions rules. Jim Manzi, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, offered an explanation of the GOP’s stance—and its predicament—in a recent National Affairs essay:
The Republican position—either avowed ignorance or conspiracy theorizing—is ultimately unsustainable, but some still cling to it because they believe that accepting the premise that some climate change is occurring as a result of human action means accepting the conclusions of the most rabid left-wing climate activists. They fear, at least implicitly, that the politics of climate change is just a twisted road with a known destination: supporting new carbon taxes, a cap-and-trade system, or other statist means of energy rationing, and in the process ceding yet another key economic sector to government control. Conservatives seem to be on the horns of a dilemma: They will have to either continue to ignore real scientific findings or accept higher taxes, energy rationing, and increased regulation.
The ultimate unsustainabilty of the party’s climate denialist position was alluded to more than four years earlier by a GOP renegade, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. During the last presidential election, at the Republican debate on Sept. 7, 2012, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were united in their distrust of the science behind anthropogenic global warming. Huntsman was the lone climate hawk. He said, “When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I’m saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science.”
His statement echoed one of his tweets from the previous month: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina later acknowledged that Huntsman, who had previously served as Obama’s ambassador to China, “would have been a very tough candidate.”
In his 2006 book, The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, Rutgers University sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel argued that denial is “fundamentally delusional … [it] may help keep us unaware of unpleasant things around us but it cannot actually make them go away.”
But there may be other forces at work other than those keeping unpleasantness at bay. In 2011, researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University of California at San Diego gave ammunition to the argument that Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an epic narrative of the greatest sociopolitical collapse in western civilization, presaged the fate of modern America. The study, published in the journal Nature, found that self-delusion is actually a successful survival strategy. The authors write: “The fact that overconfident populations are evolutionarily stable in a wide range of environments may help to explain why overconfidence remains prevalent today, even if it contributes to hubris, market bubbles, financial collapses, policy failures, disasters and costly wars.”
It may be a survival strategy for some time (decades or even centuries), but it’s hardly a prescription for serious long-term sustainability. As Carl Sagan said, “It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” While Republicans may not give much credence to the words of the late astronomer (he was a scientist, after all), maybe they should. At the rate humans are reproducing (9.6 billion by 2050) and consuming the Earth’s natural resources (140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year by 2050—three times current levels), mankind will need to find another planet to ravage.
Warning Signs, But Little Action
As the Republicans bury their heads in the sand and continue to blindy pave the road to unsustainability, climate change is poised to affect billions of people around the globe, threatening water and food supplies, development goals, public health and arable and habitable land. Indeed, many are already feeling the effects. Just ask the citizens of the soon-to-be submerged island nation of Kiribati, which has already lost several islets to rising sea levels. Or the people of the Maldives, which is on pace to lose 77 percent of its land area by 2100. Or water-stressed Californians. Or farmers in Ethiopia. As IPCC warned last year, no one on the planet will be left untouched by climate change.
Maintaining political stability amid a warming world presents a particularly difficult challenge, as people become displaced by conflict in climate hotspots. As a National Bureau of Economic Research analysis of 55 separate studies concluded, there is a meaningful connection between climate change and human violence, from domestic violence and murder to ethnic violence and even civil war. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 51 million people around the globe were “forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations.” The majority of these can be considered “climate refugees,” as they originated from regions destabilized by climate change.
In his May commencement address at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, President Obama noted this challenge, asserting that climate change ranks alongside terrorism as a primary threat to America’s future. He criticized climate deniers in Congress for putting the security of Americans at risk. “I know there are still some folks back in Washington who refuse to admit that climate change is real,” the president told graduating cadets. “Denying it, or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security. It undermines the readiness of our forces.”
In addition, a major 2009 report on managing climate change’s health effects, jointly produced by The Lancet and University College London, calls climate change the “biggest global-health threat of the 21st century.” The researchers say as rising temperatures impact farmers’ crops, half of the world’s population could face severe food shortages by the end of the century, while deadly diseases like malaria, tick-borne encephalitis and dengue fever will become increasingly widespread. The authors also highlight the idea of “intergenerational justice,” a critical yet not fully addressed social dimension of the overall climate change narrative. This idea not only challenges the intertwined notions of human and environmental rights, but also offers the various impacts of a warmer Earth as powerful examples of the wealth gap problem. “The inequity of climate change—with the rich causing most of the problem and the poor initially suffering most of the consequences — will prove to be a source of historical shame to our generation if nothing is done to address it,” they write.
And then there are the effects climate change is having on the planet’s flora, fauna and ecosystems. From melting Arctic sea ice that threatens the survival of endangered polar bears, walruses, seals and sea birds, to ocean acidification that threatens a host of marine life — including reef-building corals that not only protect coastlines from storm damage, but provide habitats for so many species — a warming world is already causing a decrease in biodiversity and species extinction.
As the U.S. is the world’s second biggest carbon emitter (after China), any hope of preventing the worst effects of climate change must include not only a strong commitment from Washington, but immediate and measurable action. What’s exceedingly frustrating is that it can be done. “We have the knowledge and we have the tools for action to try to keep temperature increases within 2°C to give our planet a chance and to give our children and grandchildren a future,” said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Pleading ignorance can no longer be an excuse for not acting.” He’s right of course. But try telling that to a Republican.