Global Warming: Why Can’t We Get Along?

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Where liberals see an urgent problem, conservatives see a bald power grab. Reconciling these viewpoints has little to do with science. Visual: iStock.com

Of the many issues that divide Americans at the dawn of the Trump administration — immigration, abortion, gun ownership — one of the most intensely partisan is global warming.

It’s a gulf that has been growing since the 1990s. Until then, Republicans and Democrats were largely aligned on a variety of environmental issues; Ronald Reagan supported the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, and George H.W. Bush supported the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Today, according to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Democrats view climate change as a very serious problem; only 20 percent of Republicans agree. Isolated in ideologically uniform “silos,” we seem to inhabit different realities, with the term “climate change” representing powerful narratives about life, religion, government, and the future.

Is there any way to bridge the divide? There are novel ways to talk about climate change with those who hold opposing views. (For starters, avoid the term itself: One study suggests it’s a nonstarter, serving to cement our previously held beliefs.) But perhaps the best strategy is to seek empathy with the underlying values and perspectives that animate different beliefs among Americans.

Following are 10 examples of the ideological worldviews and personal convictions that inform differing opinions on climate change. They’re drawn from academic studies, polling, and punditry on both sides of the political divide. By viewing climate change through the eyes and experiences of others, people on both sides of the issue may find ways to talk to — rather than simply past — one another.

The End Is Nigh
Liberals might not call it that but they have other words, for example “ecocide.” The first known use of the term came in 1969, according to Merriam Webster, which defines it as “the destruction of large areas of the natural environment as a consequence of human activity.” Today it is often used to describe the potential consequence of unchecked global warming. “Miraculous nature is being murdered,” wrote Glen Barry in 2016 about the “ecocidal tyranny” of China, America, Europe and India. “Everywhere we look inequitable over-consumption is devastating the natural ecosystems that sustain a living Earth. Together we yield to ecological truth — personally embracing a global ecology ethic, and demanding others do so as well — or we all needlessly die at each others’ throats as the global ecological system collapses and being ends.” Rachel Carson helped frame the modern world’s environmental problems in apocalyptic terms in her landmark 1962 book “Silent Spring“: “The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one ‘less traveled by’ — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” Some neuroscientists say apocalyptic thinking is an innate and ancient bias in most mammals. Could fear of climate change be playing the same psychological role for liberals as the second coming of Christ does for conservative evangelicals?
It’s Not the Apocalypse
Between Republicans and Democrats, there is what political scientist Ryan Claassen calls the “God Gap”: Evangelical Protestants are largely Republican, secular Americans lean Democratic. Furthermore, 76 percent of Republicans identify as “end-times” believers, with four out of 10 Americans reportedly believing that Jesus Christ will return to earth by 2050, coincidentally the target year for the emissions reductions in the Paris Climate Accords. Not surprisingly, a belief in the Second Coming reduces the feeling that the government should take action on climate change. “Sometimes I wish alarmists would just find God so they would embrace a more plausible apocalypse than global warming,” wrote David Harsanyi, an editor at the conservative online magazine The Federalist.
Scientists Are Our Friends
Conservatives’ suspicion of scientists is mutual; a mere 6 percent of scientists identify as Republican, 55 percent as Democratic. In a study of the public trust in science from 1974 to 2010, one researcher found that conservatives began that period with the highest level of trust in science and ended it with the lowest, while liberals’ trust held stable. Today Democrats overwhelmingly believe there is solid scientific evidence that global warming is occurring and choose to put their faith in science, even if the analysis of climate data and modeling is beyond the grasp of most laymen.
Scientists Are a Cultish Cabal
The perception of scientists as a group who put their own ambitions and bias above the data was hardened when Climategate, a perceived scandal involving hundreds of emails among climate scientists, broke in 2009. In an interview with The New York Times, Donald Trump cited the controversy as one of the reasons for his skepticism about climate change, even though the “scandal” was wholly debunked. Yet the idea persists among climate change denialists and bloggers that “climate alarmism is a cult,” with its own “priest class: taxpayer-funded impostor ‘climate scientists.’” Some right-wing commentators cite President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning, in his farewell address in January 1961, that Americans should be alert to the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.”
It’s Time for Radical Change
Liberal thinkers often frame the urgency of climate change as an opportunity to usher in correctives to an already flawed political and economic system. As Naomi Klein has said: “There are no non-radical options left before us. Change or be changed, right? And what we mean by that is that climate change, if we don’t change course, if we don’t change our political and economic system, is going to change everything about our physical world. And that is what climate scientists are telling us when they say business as usual leads to three to four degrees Celsius of warming. That’s the road we are on.”
Liberals Are Always Crying Wolf
The feeling that climate change data is really environmental propaganda to advance a political agenda goes back a couple decades. There is widespread doubt among conservatives, for instance, about the science behind the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. That same skepticism is brought to bear on the scary forecasts of climate scientists. “In 2005 the U.N. Environment Program estimated that global warming would create 50 million ‘climate refugees’ by 2010,” the Heritage Foundation argued in 2016. “In 2009 Al Gore predicted that the Arctic polar ice cap could be ice-free within seven years. The amount of warming predicted by climate models used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change hasn’t occurred. If these models can’t predict climate impacts 10 or 15 years in the future, why should we undertake costly, anti-development policies to address predictions about what may happen 100 years from now?” Nigel Farage, the British politician who helped usher in Brexit, has said that the Arctic sea ice cap is growing back and that reports of its disappearance are a conspiracy between environmental activists and E.U. federalists.
The Conspiracy Is Corporate
In a 2012 study in Nature Climate Change, academic researchers reported that people on the left “tend to be morally suspicious of commerce and industry, to which they attribute social inequity. They therefore find it congenial to believe those forms of behavior are dangerous and worthy of restriction.” This suspicion was exacerbated by reports that ExxonMobil knew about climate change as early as 1981 and has spent millions to protect its interests by promoting climate denialism. As far back as 1968, the Stanford Research Institute reported to the American Petroleum Institute that carbon dioxide could lead to significant temperature changes in the atmosphere.
This Is a Lefty Power Grab
When many conservatives hear “climate change,” they think Big Government — a Trojan horse for control over people’s liberty, through things like carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems, energy rationing. Many believe the Obama administration used climate change to promote liberal internationalism and subordinate the American Constitution. As Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and presidential primary candidate, put it: “To me this is an opportunity for the left. … They said, ‘Oh, let’s take advantage of that and say that we need the government to come in and regulate your life some more because it’s getting warmer.’”
Heroes Can Save the Planet
Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climate scientist at Oxford University, describes stopping climate change in time to prevent disaster as “humanity’s final exam.” This sense of drama often imbues climate change reports in the media. Leonardo DiCaprio, a climate change activist, has said that China “can be the hero of the environmental movement, they can be the hero of the climate change movement.” The New York Times has called California’s governor, Jerry Brown, a “climate change hero.” Another American who often gets that label is James Hansen, the NASA scientist credited with bringing climate change to the attention of the U.S. Senate and hence the public in 1988.
It’s a Conspiracy of Liberal Elites
Many Americans associate global warming with former Vice President Al Gore, whom some despise as the ultimate elitist, and view his warnings as a form of liberal brainwashing — as one voter told The Guardian, “this whole big brainwashing push to save the world from the horrible climate change.” Cynicism about the motives of environmentalists is high; the libertarian Ronald Bailey has described Rachel Carson as pushing an agenda that nature is “a source of moral good,” and that “humanity is arrogant, heedless, and often the source of moral evil.”

M.R. O’Connor, a 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, writes about the politics and ethics of science, technology, and conservation. Her first book, “Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things,” was named one of Library Journal and Amazon’s Best Books of 2015.

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