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Climate change ideology
November 26, 2009 12:57 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the liberal/conservative split in the US with regard to global warming.

I'm puzzled as to why anthropogenic climate change became a issue that's split largely along liberal/conservative lines. The analogy in my mind is of a liberal/conservative split on whether P=NP or not. Why has this become an ideological question and not a scientific one?

Remember, kids, I'm only asking a meta-question about global warming, so play nice.
posted by schrodycat to Science & Nature (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Scaling back on industry/commerce/profits e.g. the corporate world is anathemic to the trickle-down POV. Conservative/traditional/status-quo brains find it difficult to make the leap from "big problems" to "big opportunities" so they just deny the problems instead.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:04 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Because any effective response to global warming will involve closer and more demanding regulation of industry and commerce, something generally opposed by the right.
posted by enn at 1:05 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

The conservative stereotype is that they tend to become ruffled and annoyed at demands for behavior modification that comes from elite intellectuals.

"Your SUV is hurting the planet."
"I can drive whatever car I want. Go back to your ivory tower."

You can draw this line of thinking to areas like gun control (hands off!), education (I don't want to pay for teachers that will fill my kids with bad ideas), immigration (English should be the official language, we shouldn't make an extra effort to people that don't speak it), etc.

It doesn't help that requests for climate change efforts often come wrapped in ideas that cast social aspersions right from the get-go. For example, it's easy to rail against SUVs -- we've all seen bad SUV drivers. It's much harder to make the case for issuing tax breaks for alternative-energy research or public transportation.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:10 PM on November 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Why has this become an ideological question and not a scientific one?

The same question could be asked about evolution.

In that case, a few Biblical literalists have highjacked the discussion in order to push their Creationist "science."

With environmentalism in general, and global climate change in particular, conservatives tend to play the "free market" card:

their opposition to environmental regulation is often one based on the notion that business, in the abstract, should not be environmentally regulated (lest the "free market" suffer). Look at the case of drilling for oil in Alaska, or at that of mountain-top removal in coal mining: in these cases, conservatives will often be for anything they claim will provide new jobs, and against anything they claim "tree huggers" want for what to them are sentimental reasons.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:24 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Conservative: everything is fine like it is, and frankly was better before.
Liberal: everything is rubbish here and we must strive together for a better future

Taking action on climate change requires criticising the status quo, which conservatives dislike. Also, the general public does not do objective intellectual discourse, everything is political.
posted by greytape at 1:35 PM on November 26, 2009

The liberal side of the divide wants to impose a higher level of regulation on industry and on the everyday activities of ordinary people, such as driving, heating their homes, and even what they eat, based on their belief in an association between carbon-generating activities and the warming of the planet.

The conservative side of the divide doesn't like officious busybodies interfering with what they do based on an incomplete and poorly thought-out scientific concept. Until, of course, it involves some other activity that they want to interfere in based on an incomplete and poorly thought-out moral concept.
posted by megatherium at 1:36 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

It has been argued that some of the conservative-right have less interest in the longterm effects of pollution on the environment because they believe the rapture is not far off. I am not sure how true this is at the higher levels of the political parties involved, but I can tell you that at the individual level, at least anecdotally, I have found this to be the case.
posted by aleahey at 1:44 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

The religious right is not after hearing about climate change; they have the hereafter.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:45 PM on November 26, 2009

Jinx, aleahey.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:46 PM on November 26, 2009

Liberals have traditionally been for "the environment". Conservatives feel this is some sort of trick to force them to get on the bandwagon. Your average conservative is more likely to have to make bigger lifestyle adjustments than your average liberal to use less gas and energy.
posted by floam at 1:49 PM on November 26, 2009

It goes beyond cultural disdain for coastal "elites" and animus towards regulation, in my opinion - those are just outward manifestations of something deeper.

I think it's a question of the basic neuro/psychological makeup of liberals and conservatives. Climate change is a threat which requires collective action to stop, and since thinking in terms of the collective is difficult or impossible for most conservatives, they ignore the the threat entirely.

You see this over and over again. For instance, when liberals promote ideas to curb obesity, like removing soda machines from schools, or mandating that new suburban communities have sidewalks, conservatives gather their weapons for the "personal responsibility" fight, ignoring decades of medical science showing that human beings generally do not have the wherewithal to permanently lose weight on their own. The response to this is "well my cousin lost 100 pounds and kept it off, why can't everyone else?". It's an inability to think in terms broader than the individual.

This dynamic is responsible, in my opinion, for most of the liberal/conservative divide over domestic issues - debates over welfare, education, food policy and healthcare all basically revolve around this axis.
posted by downing street memo at 1:49 PM on November 26, 2009 [9 favorites]

I think there's an element of racism (or maybe xenophobia) involved as well. As I understand it, part of the international tension around the issue of global warming comes from the fact that the so-called 'developing nations' like China and India have been ramping up their industrial output significantly in the last decade or two. Their stance on the issue therefore is that they should have their "turn" to industrialize and the richer western nations that have already been through that phase in the last century should take on a relatively larger burden of the carbon emissions reduction effort. I think the natural reaction from the conservative viewpoint is along the lines of "screw what China says, we're not reducing on their behalf" which also feeds into their paranoia about being controlled by the rule of international law or treaties like the ICC or the UN or whatever.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:59 PM on November 26, 2009

Why has this become an ideological question and not a scientific one?

I think it is the truly reactionary nature of American Conservatism. All (well, most) positions are determined in reaction to the "liberals".
posted by Neiltupper at 2:07 PM on November 26, 2009

It's about being opposed to "big government" and the "nanny state" -- meaning anything that increases the power of the collective versus the individual. They more than suspect -- some firmly believe -- that whatever it is that liberals are concerned about, such as polar bears or cancer or poverty -- is either not a problem that government should solve or a trumped-up problem so that liberals can get their hands on money or power. I remember Rush Limbaugh's TV show some 20 years ago a rant about automobile mileage. This isn't about the environment, folks, he insisted, it's about control. It's about them controlling how you live. Regardless of whether Rush actually thinks this or just knows it's juicy propaganda, it underlies a lot of these debates. They just want to dictate the kind of car I drive! Thus they see progressives and liberals as naturally authoritarian and the overt issues as the Big Lie they are using to gain power. There's also an aspect here of Reagan's redefinition of "special interest" away from an investor/business who stands to gain profit and toward an activist group or academic/scientific culture that needs to continue government largesse, and that funding for research or education is therefore defined as taxpayer money underwriting liberal propaganda.

This rhetoric is so ingrained and so divorced from reality that a commenter on my local rag's website recently ranted that the businessmen who were closing down factories and sending jobs to Mexico were just doing what they were taught at "liberal business schools". Never you mind that something like 80% of MBAs vote Republican.
posted by dhartung at 2:11 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

The really out-there far-right fundamentalists believe they are all going to be whisked away by the "Rapture" very soon so they don't give a shit about what happens to the planet.
posted by mareli at 2:23 PM on November 26, 2009

"The American way of life is not negotiable."

It's attributed to George H.W. Bush, though it's hard to find an exact source, but that was the talking point of the first Bush administration in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, and it's a defining one for this debate. It's actually one that administrations of both parties have cleaved to, seeking technological fixes that perpetuate the status quo over "making new arrangements" (in James Howard Kunstler's phrase). Consider the fun poked at Obama during the campaign for suggesting that people check their car tyre pressure to save on fuel.

Note that a small group of conservatives (sometimes collectively described as "paleoconservatives") such as Andrew Bacevich take offence at the non-negotiability of the American Way of Life, as part of a wider economic and cultural critique of consumption-driven profligacy and the foreign adventures required to sustain it. Those conservatives have more in common with the radical environmentalist left than with the mainstream ameliorists on both left and right.

That said, there's undoubtedly an ideological desire to stick it up the opposite side of the debate. For every liberal who'd like to see the owner of the Dixie-flagged gun-racked 8MPG vanity pickup pay $20/gal to fill up the tank -- let's not pretend that such wishes are imaginary -- there's a conservative who'll boast of leaving the AC running at full blast while he's out just to piss off the hippies.
posted by holgate at 2:33 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

That quote was said in response to an interview by Bush the elder at the Rio earth summit. I'm quite sure I've seen the footage of it.

As an aside to your main question, here's a good discussion about why libertarians are mostly off the planet as well.

There was a book written about the topic, the Republican war on science, by Chris Mooney.
posted by wilful at 2:48 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Let me draw you a diagram:

Industries that would be forced to change by global warming legislation ==> $$ ==> FOX news ==> BLAB BLAB ==> 50% of the country thinks global warming doesn't exist.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:33 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Everything is political, or has the potential to be.

If some sort of major policy decision that would help one group of people at the expense of another were riding on whether P=NP, you can bet that a lot more people than mathematicians and computer scientists would suddenly have strong opinions on the question. Many of them really wouldn't give two squirts whether P=NP or not, they only care about the policy implications that devolve from it, and based on those policies, they would begin take sides on an otherwise objective, factual question.

Likewise, I doubt many conservatives actually care about climate science, they just care about the political implications. They undermine science, or promote one scientific conclusion over others, in order to avoid the implementation of policies that they think would be disadvantageous to them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:37 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

The issues of climate change are complex and the science continues to evolve. If you are somewhat skeptical of science in general then its very easy to have legitimate doubts about the severity of the problem. Consider for the moment the seemingly ever changing health advice on what is good for you and what will kill you - wait was margarine good or bad? what about cell phones and brain cancer. In that environment you then have interest groups on both sides that distort the science for their own purposes. For example groups that generally think more government control/regulation is a good thing, use climate change as a reason to push for more of what they think will help. Groups generally opposed to a bigger role for government understandably oppose this.

It is not difficult to see the debate in terms of "fear, OMG the world's going to end" been used as a Trojan Horse to obliterate(take control of) large sections of the economy (fossil energy sector). Basically the same as fear of WMD's was used to get the USA into Iraq.

Fundamentally conservatives tend to have a greater stake in the status quo and coupled to that a stronger belief that the status quo is good. It should be no surprise then that its hard for them to accept the fact that that's not true in the case of carbon emissions.
posted by Long Way To Go at 5:48 PM on November 26, 2009

Nthing the fact that there is a religious component to some of the global warming denial. I've heard members of my own family assert that nature is firmly within God's control, and that the idea that mankind has the power to influence or destroy the environment is a deeply arrogant presumption held mostly by materialists, atheists, and anybody who believe in humanity more than God.

I also suspect there's a lot of anti-intellectualism involved. Elements of the conservative movement work very hard to legitimize scientists and experts, especially of the international variety.
posted by Rhaomi at 5:51 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

My take, generally, on the liberal/conservative divide...

Why is one conservative? Because he is generally happy with the way things are.

The climate is changing, the operative concept being 'change'.

Since change is anathema to conservatives, they oppose actions to accommodate change, regardless of its source. (In this case, if it's human caused, we can't ignore it and must address it, so the game becomes assaulting that possibility.)

When change is afoot, one can never tell if it will benefit or hinder one's interests. If things are rosy now, as a conservative, then why would they want to change anything? Increase taxes? Decrease choice? Decrease some nebulous if unused freedom? Give up some personal wealth? Take risks with my life or my fortune? Help out people not related to me? None of this is something you hear conservatives doing much.

I think it boils down to fear of change, insufficiently influenced by empathy with other people.
posted by FauxScot at 7:56 PM on November 26, 2009

The conservative right don't like some higher up telling them what to do, based on abstract pseudo ethical/scientific ideas, creating a whole bunch of rules to follow. They also believe strongly that debate on the issue is proof it is rubbish.

So they listen to God, go to Church, read the bible and believe that atheists are morally compromised and grossly mistaken.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:14 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you tried asking this question over at Free Republic? You might get some quite illuminating answers.
posted by flabdablet at 5:49 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

So much for "play nice".

Generally speaking, those on the conservative side of the argument are concerned that increased regulation of American industry will make us less competitive in the global market. If American companies are subject to expensive regulation and their competitors in other nations are not, the rationale goes, American companies will suffer (as will their employees and so on).

Some conservatives have expressed the view that, while climate change is happening, its likely effects are being overstated by the opposition for political gain. Correct or not, this is a reasonable point of view.

The "climate change denial" wing of the conservative movement is not engaging the issue in good faith.

Generally speaking, those on the liberal side of the argument are concerned that the effects of global warming are potentially so serious that they need to take a higher priority than the economic health of American corporations. If America passes the tough regulations necessary to start reducing those effects, the rationale goes, other nations will follow our good example and start making policies in the same vein.

Some liberals have expressed the view that the opposition knows that climate change is happening and is understating its likely effects for political gain. Correct or not, this is a reasonable point of view.

The "conservatives are scientifically illiterate" wing of the liberal movement is not engaging the issue in good faith.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:37 AM on November 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

Some of the above answers shed some light, but I think the real point here is that the dichotomy introduced by the poster (scientific vs. political questions) just doesn't work in US society. Science itself is inherently political and politicized, especially as regards conservatives. These people aren't just failing to look at it through a scientific perspective, they are actively hostile to science itself.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 11:49 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Full disclosure: I'm both politically liberal and the daughter of two scientists.

In my experience, it boils down to two factors. The first is the conscious and deliberate rejection of science and reason by the whackjob right wing fringe. I'm not slandering, here; there is a movement within the religious right wing movement that specifically believes that science is anti-God. You can see some of this when George W. Bush referred disparagingly to the "reality-based community." For people who are buying into this line of thought, the scientific evidence in favor of global warming is actually a point AGAINST it. Sadly, because of the influence that fringe movements often have on the larger community, this anti-science whackery ends up bubbling through and perfusing much of the right-wing agenda.

The second factor is the belief, not as explicitly stated but still definitely present, that we as Americans have a kind of Divine Right to excess. Making do with less is for other, weaker, more socialist countries; here in America we eat more, spend more, drive more, use more oil, have bigger houses, more better deeper harder bigger faster first. Because this is AMERICA. Conserving is for pussies. I've seen people state, without irony, "Hybrids are for the French. I'm American; I drive a SUV." Anthropogenic climate change suggests that this runaway consumption might not be blameless and might actually be harming us in the long run; since that's in conflict with the Divine Right to Excess, it leads many people to reject the idea.

Neither of those views is particularly mainstream within the conservative ideology, but they do inform the discourse.
posted by KathrynT at 1:15 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why has this become an ideological question and not a scientific one?

The liberal/conservative split on the issue of climate change didn't come about in a lab--there wasn't some liberal scientist who came up with global warming, and some conservative scientist who looked at the same data and disagreed.

It became a question of ideology once it moved outside of the lab and into the realm of policy implications (i.e., a proposal to regulate this or that differently as a result of the implications of climate change research). Once it was an ideological question, the conservative side then had to go back to the scientific realm and try to discredit the original climate change research (or the conclusions it is generally thought to support) in order to bolster its own ideological side. At some point this sequence (science --> liberal policy; opposing conservative policy --> science) got blurred to the extent that many people believe that this is a genuine scientific controversy rather than an ideological conflict. Media coverage--and here I'm not just talking about Fox News--tends to reinforce that blurring. Liberal and conservative pundits yelling at each other makes for better TV than scientists talking about complex research.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:08 PM on November 27, 2009

The American right is not underpinned by anything approaching a coherent political ideology: at its best it's a swirling miasma of Chicago school economics and class war (it clearly vehemently sets out to defend the vastly superior social position of its core demographic, the non-metropolitan white upper middle class, at the expense of the vast majority of the US population).

At worst, I think we have to admit that, "Republicanism" is, effectively, the most politically successful cult to emerge in the second half of the 20th century. Adherence to the sacred cows of republican doctrine: pro-life, low taxes and anti-government intervention is rigorously, unthinkingly propagated by means of continual repetition and the attempts at publicly humiliating any of those who seek to speak out against it.

As falsifying their hypotheses is anathema to "republicanism", we should not be surprised that republicans are unwilling to enter into a scientific discussion where their hypotheses would be put to the test, and most likely, found wanting.

I should just add that, this stuff about America's lack of global competitiveness is a complete nonsense.

Firstly, there is huge scope for cheap energy efficiency savings in America. There is so much you could do tomorrow, which would actually save you money and make your economy more competative.

Secondly, Europe, China and India know that it is in their best interests to cut carbon emissions. They have all made pledges to do just that. Europe got so bored of waiting, that it went ahead and made commitments to large emissions cuts unilaterally. But note that America is not currently out competing the EU economiesm because of this.
posted by munchbunch at 8:17 AM on November 28, 2009

This thread should be bookmarked for the next Metafilter-isn't-really-biased-against-conservatives discussion. What terrible stereotypes lurk in the heart of some people.

Via Reason, I just found out about a Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project study on this very question. Quoting from the summary:
* Individuals of diverse cultural outlooks--hierarchical and egalitarian, individualistic and communitarian--hold sharply opposed beliefs about a range of societal risks...
* Individuals' expectations about the policy solution to global warming strongly influences their willingness to credit information about climate change. When told the solution to global warming is increased antipollution measures, persons of individualistic and hierarchic worldviews become less willing to credit information suggesting that global warming exists, is caused by humans, and poses significant societal dangers. Persons with such outlooks are more willing to credit the same information when told the solution to global warming is increased reliance on nuclear power generation.
I think there are historical reasons for the rift as well. The prescription that caused disbelief for the individualistic and hierarchic worldviews (typically 'conservative') was collective management of consumption. This prescription was being called for long before Climate Change was a political issue, e.g., Paul Ehrlich. Dr. James Hansen, the first well-known scientist warning about climate change, called for that prescription in his first warnings, as well. For people who had no real concept of the science, the prescription itself determined which side they would join. The dire warnings derived from Ehrlich's work were wrong, so it would appear to conservatives that climate change was just another straw their opponents were grasping at. To liberals, it was finally the comeuppance of over-consumption that humanity had avoided only through luck.

It would be an interesting world today if the first scientists warning of climate change in the 80s had instead called for massive expansion of nuclear power, aerosol dispersal, and other 'conservative-friendly' geo-engineering projects.
posted by FuManchu at 8:13 AM on December 7, 2009

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