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Too Good a Problem

Liberal politics foster climate skepticism.

With Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt to the EPA, and the accompanying flood of editorials about climate denial and climate alarmism, it’s a good time to consider why skepticism of climate change remains such a popular attitude among conservatives.

Certainly, a lot of skepticism is driven by plain old economic interests. Oil and gas companies aren’t exactly going to cheer the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There’s also the fact that any real positive climate-policy impact—as a result of sharply reduced emissions—will not be observable for decades, making it both politically and psychologically distant. But none of this should cause ordinary people—many of whom are both highly intelligent and owe none of their income to the oil and gas industry—to deny the science of climate change. There’s another reason, I think, why the whole concept is met with such resistance.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that, from a conservative point of view, climate change looks like too good a problem for liberals. Everything liberals want, or that conservatives think liberals want—more regulation, more control of the economy, more redistribution of wealth, skepticism or hostility towards capitalism and of America’s status as an affluent superpower—are suggested or required by the reality of climate change. The conservative sees liberals rubbing their hands together at the prospect of a problem that needs such solutions, and he thinks, “No, such a perfect problem couldn’t ‘just happen’ to arise—it must be invented or massively overstated.”

In a similar vein, climate change also undermines a particular way of thinking about growth, development, and industry that was current at a time when many older climate skeptics were children or teenagers. My father often talks about the 1964 World’s Fair, where oil, electricity, and technology were presented as artifacts of man’s intelligence and drive for better living. The burning of fossil fuel and the manufacturing of chemicals were not mere industrial processes. They were symbols of progress for a country that was, to the likely surprise of today’s young, still building its major highways and electrifying its vast interior and countryside.

Then along come climate activists, claiming that these symbols of human progress and uplift were a toxic addiction that was destroying the planet and would destroy our comfortable way of life with it. Take Annie Leonard, the environmental activist who wrote The Story of Stuff, an anodyne-sounding environmentalist manifesto that doubles as a critique of industrial capitalism. Leonard concedes, in the foreword to the paperback version, that maybe all of the people who called her a communist—and plenty did—were not too far off the mark. Or read Naomi Klein’s intro to This Changes Everything, which states that preventing climate-induced catastrophe involves “changing everything … how we live, how our economies function, even the stories we tell about our place on earth.” One suspects that people of Leonard’s or Klein’s political persuasion did not need climate change to convince them of any of this.

And what’s more, people like Leonard and Klein aren’t just asking people to accept a scientific theory. They are asking them to unlearn a deeply instilled worldview and learn a new one. That is simply not easy, and we really cannot expect people to do it.

But on the other hand, despite their disagreements on the particulars, scientists no longer seriously question that humans play a role in climate change, or that allowing the trend to continue could be disastrous. We must remember that the reality of a problem and the potential solutions or implications of that problem are utterly unconnected.

By getting this wrong—by acting as though the scientific reality of climate change must either be packaged with specific economic policies, or not be true at all—many conservatives have unfortunately removed themselves from one of the most active and vibrant areas of policymaking. And liberal activists, by excitedly treating climate change as a problem that could validate previously desired left-wing policy goals, contributed to climate skepticism on the right.

The conflation of climate policy with climate science also greatly damaged the credibility of scientists as neutral and benign experts. The politicization of the climate issue has understandably driven many scientists to the Democratic Party, which in turn only seems to confirm the conservative critique that the science is a front for the politics.

So to the cheerleaders and the skeptics of any claim: the claim itself, and what that claim, if true, requires in real life, are different. One does not say anything about the other. It is also unlikely, in such a great, diverse world, that such a vast problem could have only one or two specific solutions. Getting this wrong does not just lead to counterproductive politics, but to sloppy analysis and thinking.

Understanding how we got to where we are in the climate debate doesn’t necessarily mean we can reverse it. Political and social attitudes cannot be neatly taken apart like Tinkertoys. But if we understand the psychology and politics behind our thankless approach to climate politics, we may improve it going forward. We might also get along better, and the earth may thank us.