Posted by: Jeff | December 1, 2009

Climate Change Skepticism: Where Does It Come From?

(updated below)

The Copenhagen climate change summit is a week away, and there’s been a great deal of buzz in the blogosphere about potential US overtures on greenhouse gas emission reduction agreements.  President Obama has announced he will be attending the conference prior to accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, and this has sent a message that the United States will be ratcheting up pressure to build consensus for action on climate change.

Gary, Indiana from the shore of Lake Michigan. Photo: Me.

However, the President still faces a significant amount of resistance to this agenda.   Conservatives have been outspoken against pending cap and trade legislation, arguing both that it places an unfair tax burden on businesses and that it addresses an unproven fear – global warming.

But can we really call climate change unproven at this point?  Though only 52% of Americans believe there is a scientific consensus on anthropogenic reasons for warming, a recent survey by Gallup found that 97% of actively-publishing climatologists believe global warming is at least partially fueled by man-made causes.

Data from Gallup poll (2008).

Scientists have been able to measure both carbon output and temperature over time, and have discovered that there is a tremendously high correlation between exponential increases in carbon output and accelerating warming.

Graph courtesy "Democracy in America": http://www.economist.com

Further, scientists have demonstrably proven that the recent increase in carbon output has drastically changed the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.  I’m no scientist, so I won’t get into the weeds of scientific analysis and climatology, but suffice it to say that the scientific community seems to overwhelmingly lend credence to the idea that humans are partially responsible for rising temperatures.

Which makes the news that Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is headed to Copenhagen with a “truth squad” of climate change skeptics seriously raise an eyebrow.  With cap and trade tabled indefinitely in the Senate and a number of prominent Republicans speaking out against the “conspiracy” of climate change, one has to wonder what basis exists for such doubt.  But to add to the confusion, in addition to the roughly 48% of Americans that don’t believe a scientific consensus exists in support of man-made causes of global warming a recent poll suggests that nearly half of all Republicans deny any form of warming at all:

Only 54% of Republicans believe “the world’s temperature may have been going up slowly over the past 100 years,” versus 43% who don’t believe it. By contrast, 71% of independents say it’s been happening — almost exactly the same at the 72% overall who believe this. Obviously, an even higher number of Dems (86%) believe it.

Now, as near as I can tell, there are two predominant reasons for global warming skepticism.  The first is an overall skepticism in the validity of science.  Several prominent skeptics point to instances of counterfactual evidence as proof that the broader theory is false.  For instance, despite alarming evidence of rapid melting of ice sheets in West Antarctica, skeptics point to moderate gains in surface ice in East Antarctica over the past few years, despite the finding that the melting in the West could lead to a rise in ocean levels of five feet by 2100.  In fact, the preservation of ice in the East is largely a man-made phenomenon as well, and not one likely to last:

The stable temperatures — and in some areas additional cooling — over much of the vast Antarctic continent during the last 30 years has been offered as evidence by climate skeptics that global warming trends were exaggerated or simply false.

But with measures to control the CFC gases, the scientists said they expected the hole to “heal” in around 50 to 60 years, leading to additional warming of about 3.0 Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) by century’s end.

The other reason for the widespread rejection of scientific consensus is religion.  For many religious conservatives, anthropomorphic anything is anathema to a belief in a world and environment created by God.  It may be no surprise that surveys of belief in creationism and skepticism of global warming largely corrolate (a fascinating poll result in its own right).

Second, many conservatives seem to be skeptical of global warming as part of a larger rejection of liberal dogma in general.  Now, this is a point that I must admit I don’t fully understand.  It baffles me as to why an issue of scientific consensus should fall along partisan lines.  Surely there is nothing in the “freedom, liberty, small government” agenda of conservatives that compels skepticism on scientific consensus.  And I don’t think liberal values necessarily equip individuals with a stronger understanding of science.  So I’m not sure how else to describe this divide other than to conclude that at some level the parties must seem diametrically opposed to one another.  If Al Gore is a climate change believer, then perhaps conservatives feel compelled by party allegiance to disagree?

If true, this is a dangerous trend.  We’ve already seen tea partiers happily proclaim hollow mantras of less government interference while protesting planned reductions in medicare coverage.  And how many anti-deficit members of Congress can you name that voted in favor of the Iraq War and subsequent funding increases?  I can think of a dozen off the top of my head.  If you still need proof that the Republican Party is struggling to find a platform that isn’t simply anti-Democrat, look no further than global warming.  During the debate on the stimulus, they stood on the wrong side of economic theory.  Now they’re standing on the wrong side of science.

Update: Andrew Sullivan has observed the same phenomenon:

But a conservative will surely also want to be sure that he conserves this inheritance, for its own sake and also for his future use. He will want to husband the natural world, not rape it and throw it away. He will see the abandonment of all values to that of immediate gratification as a form of insanity, if not evil.

And he will want to ensure that his children will enjoy the world as he has.

These are deeply conservative instincts, humble in the face of nature, conscious of the need to preserve for the future, aware of the limits of exploitation. These conservatives aren’t utopian tree-huggers. They do not worship Gaia or see no give and take with the natural world. They believe in the harvest but also in the need for fallow years and for care and husbandry of animals and plants and environments. And they love their home for its specificity and its beauty, and do not want to see its stability and future gambled away on the casino of greed.

And yet nothing is more alien to what now passes for American conservatism than this respect and care for nature. Which is why it isn’t really conservative in any meaningful sense at all.

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Responses

  1. Something you didn’t discuss: perhaps some of the skepticism towards global warming is in part due to tenuous links that the media try to form between current events and rising temperatures. A recent example of this is the modus ponens claim that global warming triggers an increase prostitution and HIV (http://www.gmanews.tv/story/177346/climate-change-pushes-poor-women-to-prostitution-dangerous-work).

    In the WSJ a few weeks ago, Daniel Henninger describes this sentiment almost perfectly in the subtitle of his column on Balloon Boy: “With fakery everywhere today, people retreat into a shell of cynicism about everything.” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704597704574487311163219306.html).

    Also, Accuweather has an interesting blog that covers contemporary global warming topics.

    http://global-warming.accuweather.com/

  2. Wow @ that first link. That’s a very good point – especially if one is disinclined to believe whatever else is being sold. There’s definitely a lack of trust in both the media and in politicians on the opposite side of the aisle from wherever a specific individual stands. And given the tendency for hyperbole and hastily-drawn conclusions by all parties, it’s hard to blame people for a healthy degree of skepticism as it pertains to political issues.

    That said, I still think there’s an interesting distinction between most political issues and global warming. It’s one thing to be skeptical of Democratic claims of cost reduction in the health care bill or to be skeptical of evidence that man is responsible for warming, but to deny the very phenomenon of warming seems to fly not only in the face of the media and politicians, but science itself. Maybe conservatives are more disinclined to investigate independently claims made by Democrats, because I don’t think access to information is drastically different between party affiliates.

  3. […] aside, what Will is suggesting is that there is no evidence for warming, and that blizzards somehow contradict a theory that suggests climate change will slowly usher in […]


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