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Tribalism and climate change

Image: Molly Adams

There is no obvious reason why climate change should be so politically charged.  After all, atmospheric carbon rises and polar ice melts irrespective of what colour rosette a particular president or prime minister happens to wear.  As Doctor Marshall Shepherd in Forbes writes:

“I too have been surprised by why many people align their climate change opinions along party lines with very little thought about it. A recent study continues to point to political polarization on climate change.”

Shepherd reports findings from a Georgia State University study that found that “party identification” and “political ideology” were dominant predictors of people’s viewpoints on climate change.  Democrat/liberals are far more likely to believe that climate change is happening and requires action, while republican/conservatives are more likely to believe it is a hoax or is exaggerated.

When it comes to climate change, democrats/liberals are not so different to their republican/conservative adversaries; they just do denial in a different way.  As Erik Lindberg explains:

“If we broadened the debate just a little bit, however, we would see that most liberals have just moved a giant boat-load of denial down-stream, and that this denial is as harmful as that of conservatives.  While the various aspects of liberal denial are my main overall topic, here, and will be addressed in our following five sections, they add up to the belief that we can avoid the most catastrophic levels of climate disruption without changing our fundamental way of life.  This is myth is based on errors that are as profound and basic as the conservative denial of climate change itself…

“The denial of climate change isn’t responsible for the fact that we, in the United States, are responsible for about one quarter of all current emissions if you include the industrial products we consume (and an even greater percentage of all emissions over time), even though we make up only 6% of the world’s population.  Our high-consumption lifestyles are responsible for this.  Republicans do not emit an appreciably larger amount of carbon dioxide than Democrats.”

The democrat/liberal tribe are just as willing to produce babies, eat meat, drive big cars and consume goods and services are the republican/conservative tribe – who are just a bit more honest about their lack of caring about the impact on the environment… although even this need not be true.

One reason why the climate debate is more nuanced in the UK is that the Prime Minister first confronted with evidence of the need to act on climate change back in the 1980s also happened to be an esteemed research chemist who understood enough about the science not to dismiss it.  The result is that the UK debate has centred on the best means of tackling climate change rather than whether it is a hoax or not.  Where the Greens, nationalists and Labour look to state intervention, Tories look to the market.

Some US conservatives also see a value in shifting the climate debate toward market solutions too.  In a Forbes article last year, James Taylor argued that:

“Conservatives have a golden opportunity to show political leadership and checkmate the left on global warming policy with a conservative energy agenda championing natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power. This would address global warming concerns while bringing more affordable energy options to consumers. Conservatives would force liberal political leaders to repudiate the far left’s ‘wind and solar only’ energy position or defend to a skeptical electorate why they are obstructing affordable energy options that dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”

This is politics too.  There is simply no way of keeping global warming below 2 degrees if we are burning gas without the so-far illusive carbon capture and storage technology.  However, it gets at precisely the democrat/liberal Achilles’ heel noted by Lindberg:

“Everything else hinges on the myth that we might live a lifestyle similar to our current one powered by wind, solar, and biofuels.  Like the conservative belief that climate change cannot be happening, liberals believe that renewable energy must be a suitable replacement.  Neither view is particularly concerned with the evidence…

“We have a situation, then, where one half of the population says it is not happening, and the other half says it is happening but fighting it doesn’t have to change our way of life.  Like a dysfunctional and enabling married couple, the bickering and finger-pointing, and anger ensures that nothing has to change and that no one has to actually look deeply at themselves, even as the wheels are falling off the family-life they have co-created.”

Meanwhile, of course, the actual data goes from bad to worse.  With the USA choking as forest fires rage in the western states even as the southern and eastern states reel from one record hurricane to the next, we might expect some political introspection.  The reverse seems to be happening according to Shepherd:

“The Georgia State University study finds that most dominant predictors of viewpoint on climate change were political ideology, party identification, and relative concern about environmental conservation and economic development. These attributes outweighed respondent experiences with hot weather, drought, or natural disasters. One particularly interesting finding was that the ‘political party effect’ was even more amplified if the respondent was more attentive to news and public affairs.”

Instead of forcing us to question our climate assumptions, it turns out that news about climate-related disasters causes us to follow our chosen party line even more fervently.  This, in turn, is why in the end we will do nothing about climate change.


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