Why don’t Americans believe in global warming?
This Economist article explores the possible psychological, economic, political, epistemological, and metaphysical reasons for why "America is a laggard in the fight against climate change." To band everyone behind the climate movement, the author suggests focusing on the topic of renewable-energy sources because it can "help mitigate the economic and psychological concerns" some carry on climate change and, as indicated by yesterday's post, alternative energy is an issue that has majority support in all the political parties.
Posted on The Economist
February 8, 2011
Why don't Americans believe in global warming?
FIRST of all, I apologise for the slightly inflammatory headline of this post. The fact is that a majority of Americans (58%) do think climate change is a serious problem, according to the January 2011 Rasmussen Energy Update, and fully one-third, 33%, "see it as a Very Serious problem." Still, the United States is less exercised about climate change than a lot of countries, and it's one of the few places where you can turn on the television and catch a debate between mainstream figures about whether climate change is even real. Over the weekend, for example, Charles Krauthammer suggested that a belief in global warming has the same epistemological status as a religious belief.
I've been wanting to take a step back and think about why America is a laggard in the fight against climate change. I would posit a handful of explanations:
Psychological: The consequences of climate change are too awful to contemplate. Therefore, we're denying the issue, as we used to deny monsters in the room by hiding under the blanket. If you don't look at it, it can't look at you.
Economic: The costs of a large-scale effort to fight global warming are too steep to bear. Therefore, we're trying to ignore the issue, or pretending it doesn't exist, or we believe that the economy (including development) is more important.
Political: The fact that Democrats are always hammering on about climate change and Republicans aren't suggests that this is a political issue, not a scientific one. This creates a feedback loop: if climate change were real, why is it so polarising? Because it's so polarising, it must be slightly suspicious.
Epistemological: Why should we believe in climate change? Where's the evidence? All we know is what scientists say, and scientists are sometimes wrong. And don't even get me started on Al Gore.
Metaphysical: God isn't going to let millions of people die in an epic drought.
I suspect the metaphysical denial is quite rare—but given the comparative religiosity of American culture and the stereotypes thereof, it gets a lot of air time. It is also the least valid of the reasons for denial (partly because in the given system, God obviously does let people die). The other explanations are more common. In the Rasmussen poll, for example, a plurality of respondents said that "there is a conflict between environmental protection and economic growth."
I would add here that America's recalcitrance relative to the rest of the rich world reflects two things about the United States. The first is that America consumes a lot of the world's resources. That means America would incur heavier costs than a small European state from a large-scale effort to fight climate change; disproportionate to its size, but proportionate to its (disproportionate) energy use. The second is that America is big enough that its agreement is probably necessary and perhaps even sufficient for a serious climate fight. In a sense, some international environmental rhetoric could be free riding on American inaction. Neither of these are excuses, just explanatory factors.
The political and epistemological reasons are pronounced in America and are interrelated. Again, in keeping with the perception that a lot of Americans are religious whackos, there is a perception that this is a country that doesn't believe in science. But the R&D spending would suggest otherwise. It may be that Americans are unusually willing to break rank with scientific authority—as seen in the occasional flare-ups of vaccine scepticism—but it's not a thoroughgoing animus. (Have dinner with a pregnant woman sometime, and see what I mean.) Similarly, there's not some kind of secret American campaign against the environment. In the 1960s the United States played a leading role in starting the modern environmental movement. It was America, in fact, that saved a lot of whales.
Today, however, there seems to be a particular hostility to climate scientists among a large minority of Americans. The polarisation around the issue, which tends to fall on partisan lines, creates a feedback loop: "If this is a Very Serious problem, why are people still arguing about it?" a Republican would ask. A Democrat, fielding that question, would feel simultaneously condescending and embattled. And they dig their holes a little deeper.
So this is yet another of those cases where America needs to build some ladders to help everyone climb out. How to go about this? A somewhat constructivist approach to building public concern would be to build up the issue-linkage between climate change and the search for renewable-energy sources. This would help mitigate the economic and psychological concerns (the latter because it's easier to accept a problem exists if you have a way of addressing it.) And renewable energy doesn't have the political or epistemological baggage of climate change. As my colleague said yesterday, "The idea that sustainable-resource use and renewable energy is some kind of socialist hippy hobby is incredibly naive and frivolous, and extremely damaging to the American economy." I agree, and this is an area where M.S. could make common cause with conservatives. Even people who don't believe in climate change, even here in Darkest Texas, believe in renewable-energy companies. Nearly two-thirds, again according to Rasmussen, say that renewables are a better investment for America than fossil fuels.
(Photo credit: AFP)