Identity Politics and Climate Change Denial

This piece  claims that the modern Republican Party does not believe in science.   Riley Dunlap  has conducted the best work that I know of on documenting long run trends in views on climate change as a function of political affiliation.   Below, I report the type of graph he creates and analyzes.

This Gallup Poll shows a divergence between the left and the right. Note that the political right’s decline in “belief” hasn’t sharply fallen over 10 years while liberal belief has sharply increased. 

So, what is going on here?    I can only speculate but here is my conjecture.   A Glenn Beck knows who he is and who he opposes.  When an “Al Gore” embraces an issue (such as climate change) and indicts the “Hummer Suburban” crowd for causing the problem, there is bound to be backlash.    An unintended consequence of liberals embracing carbon mitigation and turning it into a moral issue is that there has been active defiance among Republicans.   

This issue is compounded by the fact that Republicans tend to live in suburban low density and are aware that their lifestyle will be differentially impacted by carbon pricing.   In contrast, liberals have self selected to live in places (Manhattan and San Francisco) where they can have a small carbon footprint and won’t face the same transition carbon bill if carbon pricing is enacted.

So, how do we get to “yes”?   Must liberals have to hope for a natural disaster that is nasty enough so that Republicans are jolted into being willing to take costly preemptive carbon mitigation action?   Must liberals find a technological fix that lowers the cost to Nascar Dads to embrace the low carbon agenda?  What are other pathways towards building a majority coalition?   How many moderate Republicans are there and what swings people back to the middle?

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

31 thoughts on “Identity Politics and Climate Change Denial”

  1. what does the post have to do with the question posed in the graphic? That people interpret evidence in a politically convenient way? yikes, what’s a Bayesian to do?

  2. Conservatives don’t believe in science, water is wet, fire is hot. Film at 11. Seriously is this worth blogging about? Everyone knows this.

    I remember the attacks on science under the Bush administration. Conservatives don’t like science because it undermines their worldview. Every branch of science undermines the view that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old.

  3. A kleptocracy wrapped up in an oligarchy informing an idiocracy

    So, how do we get to “yes”?

    Matthew, I don’t think you do.
    Here is my model of the future:

    1) Denial denial denial until the last possible second…
    2) And then thereafter, an immediate right-wing shift and heavy push for the spraying of sulfur dioxide to cool down the planet.
    (I suspect Haliburton will win the bid.)

    This has been apparently to me for at least a decade. New Scientist ran a recent piece affirming and informing on my model:

    A number of right-wing think tanks actively denying climate change are also promoting geoengineering, an irony that seems to escape them.

    Of course the irony doesn’t escape them. They are aware and purposely running to a well laid plan. What I find most remarkable is that we live in a world where today’s global warming naysayers will instant abandon one position and pick up the other without paying any price for being wrong.

    That’s why I am astonished that you are an optimist.
    The game is totally+totally rigged.
    Abandon all hope ye who live here….

  4. I think teh only way is once renewable companies are significant size relative to fossil fuel companies, and can counter balance the other’s weight.

  5. The solution is to keep the EPA from being defunded, and it will incrementally tighten on the Clean Air Act and CO2. Also to support carbon sequestration and biomass burning in former coal plants, as those solutions do the least to upset the political apple cart while getting us some solutions.

    Biomass power PLUS carbon sequestration is a carbon negative solution. I think it might save our skins starting around 2070 – we could significantly overshoot where we really should be in terms of total CO2, and then start drawing down CO2 by 1ppm annually.

    That’s how I would try to roll the dice, in lieu of actually taking intelligent mitigation steps.

  6. So, what you’re saying is that liberal belief that the effects of global warming are already here, has been going up even as global temperatures have stopped going up? And this represents a problem because conservatives haven’t followed along?

  7. And Brett is here to prove that Kahn’s naive hope for the market reacting is just wrong.

    And yes its all Al Gore’s fault! Let’s just ignore the two oil men who were just President and Vice President of the United States and the inflow of Koch money.

  8. I don’t think conservatives dispute that earth is in a warming trend, which started before industrialization could possibly have had an impact. The question is whether man’s activities have caused or even exacerbated this trend, and the evidence I’ve seen is inconclusive to prove either side’s contention. One thing I do know intuitively is that the dopey EPA policies touted by the progressive community won’t have any measurable effect on the climate, or even on total emissions given that the developing world rightly claims their own right to progress.

    Climate cycles have been a fact of earth’s history and it is the height of man’s arrogance to believe we are the cause.

    My own opinion is that environmentalists, climate fearmongers and the like use these “scientific” rationales to justify an overall anti-industrial and anti-business agenda that is the real objective for them. That is why they have no credibility for me.

    If they really cared about the environment, and if reducing emissions was their impeative, we would have been building nuclear plants for the last 30 years as Europe has. But they opposed those too, preventing a single plant from beiong built in the US since who knows when. That’s the tipoff to the real agenda.

    Man must adjust to climate change, we cannot reverse it. Why are today’s conditions to be considered abnormal versus say, the Middle Ages when the climate was discernably cooler?

  9. Rewdwave72:

    Yes, it started before industrialization could have had an effect. It (early global warming) appears to be a side effect of agriculture: beginning of large scale rice cultivation seems to be the first detectable sign. At the end of January, there was a :a href=””>report that Genghis Khan is detectable in the climate record; so many wiped out that forests made a large comeback in widespread areas that had been cultivated, and this led to large scale carbon sequestration.

  10. How about this scenario:

    One of the big chinese solar-energy companies (cue ominous music) buys BP or Exxon-Mobil and starts funding a big carbon-reduction push in the media to gain strategic position against other energy companies. A billion dollars later, Beck, Boehner and Palin all unite behind a hydrogen economy now, scorning the liberals who want to phase gasoline out gradually. George Bush is seen as a visionary.

    Because this is about tribal identity, so long as liberals are perceived as the believers in climate change and its dangers, soi-disant conservatives will be skeptics. The only way to get the right wing on board with recognizing greenhouse dangers is if they can believe that doing so involves punching hippies.

  11. Brett, I would ask if you have no shame, but it’s clear that you don’t.
    However, try your GOP lies elsewhere (and don’t pretend that you’re a libertarian;
    right here we’ve seen initiation of force or fraud for GOP causes).

  12. Brett, read the most recent numbers from Gallup. Liberals have been getting less sure about global warming effects being present.
    Not that Mamma Nature gives a F about our beliefs. She follows the laws of physics rather than the polls.

    Note to M.K. – Pound on the facts, not the polls.

    (Not a sock puppet, the M.K. thing is just a co-incidence. Really)

  13. It is not anthropomorphic but rather anthropogenic climate change. And our conservative friends parroting long-ago refuted talking points (especially the ludicrous ‘temps stopped going up) is a strong indicator of folks not grasping facts. But as stated above, that would negate a worldview and self-identity, so facts are out.

    I also very much enjoy the koreyel phrase “A kleptocracy wrapped up in an oligarchy informing an idiocracy”.

    But back OT, I’m not sure what an economist can recommend as any sort of solution set that overcomes a divided electorate. Technological optimism won’t change the minds of those who refuse to/cannot change. And the paid-for electeds will not make any change as we see every day. They cannot even change the system that got us in this mess, evidenced by Finance and Wall St still controlling the game. We cannot solve the problems we caused, IMHO.

  14. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally, and Redwave is right about nukes. It is a “magic technological fix” to CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants: a major source of anthropogenic global warming. However, much of the left does not like it. I could understand the reservations about nukes before anthropogenic global warming became a salient issue–nuclear waste disposal is a serious and unresolved issue. But the problems of waste disposal pale against those of anthropogenic global warming, and nukes are a workable bridge to a renewable future.

    So even for the left, tribalism sometimes trumps rationality. On the other hand, it is much easier to find pro-nuke pinkos than to find wingnuts who accept anthropogenic global warming. (Thank you, Redwave, for serving as an example.) And it is hard to think of many other technological issues in which pinkos are in thrall to tribal beliefs. (GMOs might be one example, although the anti-GMO pinkos I know, when pressed hard, will drop their FRANKENFOOD! line and come up with more rational arguments about agricultural economics.)

  15. I don’t want to bog down the thread discussing semantics, but the roots -morphic and -genic mean two different things. Having human form, shape or attributes is different than having human influence, origin or cause. More precise is -genic. My 2¢.

    But back to the point: basic physics works on planet earth too. More energy in the system, more feedbacks, more variability and less predictablilty. Depending on markets for the bulk of the solutioning is presuming that markets don’t mind unpredictability when making investment decisions. New Scientist in 2008 had a special issue devoted to this problem.

    We need new thinking to get through the bottleneck, and our current political economy is insufficient for the challenge.

  16. Ideological tribalism has a role. I’m not sure why “Al Gore” should be blamed for Glenn Beck — one might suspect Professor Kahn feels the pull of some tribal drums, himself.

    Professor Kahn’s other political point seems more relevant: the Republican Party is dominated, at the moment, by the agitation of the ex-urbs, who are see their lives melting away, when gasoline prices nudge up a notch. Huge swathes of America are built around cheap gas: you drive to a better job, better schools, a better house, a better neighborhood, cheaper groceries and clothes. The suburban paradigm is deeply entrenched and is all people have known for three generations; cheap gas and your willingness to drive farther is your power, for lots of people.

    When George W. Bush was destroying everything, I wanted to believe that the American people were receiving a political education in the kinds of policies not to pursue, and found hopeful, his increasing unpopularity. But, the truth is, that Bush’s popularity correlated less with his general policy failures and lack of integrity, than, simply, with the price of gas.

    Most Americans are not well-informed about politics. I saw polls recently on American’s views of events in Egypt, that indicated that half of the American population was unaware of events in Egypt. They don’t have well-informed, well-reasoned thoughts on politics.

    I’m inclined to think that the best hope lies in infrastructure spending. Intercity, high-speed rail, for example, has the potential for changing the economics of the areas through which it passes, creating an escape route for some of the ex-urbs.

    Naturally, tribalism means that Republican governors in New Jersey and Wisconsin, to take two prominent examples from recent news reports, are targeting intercity rail projects, as heresies.

    Political battles have to be fought and won — not lost in some faux Grand Bargain of centrist corruption, either. But, the key fights are the ones that involve investments that change the landscape. Right now, the left is losing those battles, and that, too, will change the landscape, but not for the better. I wonder if it will, at least, change the narrative.

  17. Huge swathes of America are built around cheap gas: you drive to a better job, better schools, a better house, a better neighborhood, cheaper groceries and clothes. The suburban paradigm is deeply entrenched and is all people have known for three generations; cheap gas and your willingness to drive farther is your power, for lots of people.

    Yes. Well said. I’d also add two things:

    o Many people see it this way: cheap gas and your willingness to drive farther is freedom for many. When you denigrate ticky-tack suburbs, some people think you are taking away their freedom. Much better framing needs to be done here to avoid thinking that when a greenie mentions suburbs are wasteful that means they want to foist their Agenda 21 plot on your freedom.

    o Much of human expansion and population levels are built around cheap energy. When cheap energy disappears, much more human expenditure will be needed to maintain basics such as food production, as cheap energy replaced human labor in food production. If this isn’t solved, a hard landing is ahead. Again, our current political economy cannot address this problem.

  18. “Much of human expansion and population levels are built around cheap energy. When cheap energy disappears . . . ”

    Unless you think the sun is about to wink out, I don’t see that “cheap energy”, per se, is likely to disappear. What is disappearing, fairly rapidly, is the ability to externalize costs.

    Revise your dictum to, “Much of human expansion . . . has been built around the ability to externalize costs” and I think your analysis will gain a sharper edge. The European conquest of the globe and the accompanying industrial revolution were built on cheap something, but that wasn’t cheap “energy” per se, but, rather, the ability of the conquerors and capitalists to ignore, or postpone accountability for, the cost of waste, pollution and depletion.

    “Energy” is implicated in the general pattern by the Second Law of Thermodynamics — every use of energy to produce goods also produces pollution — and by the prominent role of fossil fuels.

    The challenge to our political economy is to institutionalize the internalization of costs. The apocalypse of failing to do so won’t be rising costs of energy (unfortunately), but a global tragedy of the commons, as the net productivity of nature declines precipitously.

    To come back to the post topic, I don’t think the Republicans are ignorant boobs, or reality-challenged (or any more reality-challenged than many of my fellow true-believing liberals). What separates right and left in American politics is their attitude toward externalities. The Right wants to defend their right to prosper by externalizing costs: they are business men, who want lower wages; oil companies, who want war in the Middle East; people, who fear that financial regulation will deprive them of their ability to profit from scams and frauds and usurious credit cards and pay-day lending.

    The political problem is an age-old problem of government and politics. The government can be an instrument of defense against the bullies, or it can be the instrument of the bullies.

    If the politics allows institutions to internalize costs, the economic problem becomes one of entropy. It doesn’t really matter how cheap “energy” is, per unit to produce, every use of energy entails entropy (waste, pollution) in direct proportion to the use. We want to keep energy cheap, but despite the cheapness of it, to reduce use. We want Jevons in reverse. The timely information revolution means that we have the capacity to improve control and technical efficiency to a remarkable degree — to increase the energy efficiency of our production processes, and to exercise a degree of self-restraint in choosing production processes of much greater potential efficiency (to communicate rather than travel and to travel by rail rather than road).

    I’m pessimistic though. I think the bullies are in charge, and so we will get war and plagues and climate-engineering. Oh, well.

  19. “Many people see it this way: cheap gas and your willingness to drive farther is freedom for many. When you denigrate ticky-tack suburbs, some people think you are taking away their freedom.”

    Well, if you’re going to characterize a refusal to federally fund some sorts of abortions as an attack on freedom, I don’t see how you can consistently deny that trying to make gas more expensive isn’t also an attack on freedom.

  20. While I agree, Bruce, that externalizing costs is an important component of the economic expansion of a good chunk of the human world, the utilization of cheap energy from fossil fuel is an important component of technological expansion. Internal-combustion horsepower increases, electrification of rural areas, pumping groundwater, the ability to synthesize chemicals at high pressure and temps (pharmacological, agricultural), building envelope modification…without these important activities based on cheap energy, our economic failure to internalize harmful costs could not proceed.

    Second, I’m a plant guy so I appreciate the importance of Sol for absolutely everything we do, as if it weren’t for plants, we wouldn’t be here. But we cannot assert that capturing and utilizing free energy falling in the hundreds and thousands of W/m^2 is cheap. Getting the rare-earth minerals needed to utilize is not cheap. Small-scale solar with things like wires of human hair and solar hot water in Africa are important, sure.

    And I’m totally on board with efficiencies. I’ve worked on several projects utilizing straw bale and bale-like materials, worked with energy retrofit projects, and work indirectly on initiatives for more efficient building envelopes.

    But scaling up to utilize renewables to match the scale of fossil? We have lagged far behind in the R&D for several key reasons. And our political economy will not allow us to speed up the process. We need an Apollo-like or WWII-like initiative. Starting 5-10 years ago. Part of that project is figuring out human psychology to help people think outside their narrow group to apprehend and appreciate their actions’ effects on others. That is either a multigenerational project or dictum by authority. With respect to the latter, we have a majority that is reality-based and poll after poll indicates action is needed (no indication of how to pay for it, which is the political economy thing again).

    I’m a glass half-full guy. It is half-full of tainted groundwater containing endocrine disruptors and fertilizer runoff, but still. ;o)

  21. At some point in time, (I think it was during the Carter Administration), the Right became the optimists, a role the Left had played since the New Deal. Pessimism on the Left is a big reason why you guys are so miserable all the time, why your ideas are largely bankrupt (morally, spiritually, intellectually), and why history is on our side, though of course not without detours.

    Now I’ll tell you how I really feel. I am and have been a complete optimist, and this has been very helpful to me in so many ways that I don’t want to use the comment space to list them. The energy that will power our cars and other gadgets will change to cleaner, cheaper, and technologically superior form in due course. Scaling up will take time. The technology for these changes is largely discovered already. TV existed for twenty years before it became generally known in homes. Computers existed long before the first goofy Radio Shack was available for sale. The incentive to invent, commercialize, distribute, etc. is tremendous, and as long as we retain that, my optimism will be justified.

    The most compelling development of the last forty years is that the Third World is joining the party. They are way behind and a pessimist would view their situation as objectively horrible. An optimist would consider where they are coming from and rejoice in the trajectory. These are and will be markets, productive populations, and contributors to a better world. Any objective study would show that as societies progress and become economically free and productive, notwithstanding the early industrialization stage where you get an environmental disaster like Russia and China (we are still cleaning ours up), they become cleaner, healthier, and environmentally more responsible.

    So it becomes a question of time. We aren’t going to hell in a handbasket by using the internal combustion engine as our chief means of transport for another 20 years or so. And none of us will be around to see man’s progress for all that long. Those who have been around for the last 80 years have seen extraordinary changes, along with the extraordinary violence of the 20th century that accompanied man’s inability to understand what was happening around him. I believe that chapter is ebbing as well. It is certainly helping to quell violence to have women in leadership positions.

  22. I think technology, especially government-incentivized technology, will play a big role in solving the climate problems, but it will happen despite the politics of people who think doing nothing is just fine and the problem will solve itself.

    As for none of us being around for long, I bet all of us know someone with a decent chance of living to see the year 2100. It’s not that far off.

Comments are closed.