Acceptance of climate change isn't about ideology

Second Pillar of Denial: by Josh Rosenau for NCSE, 2012

The second pillar of climate change denial — that acceptance of climate change is driven by radical ideological motivations and leads to undesirable social consequences — is itself typically based on economic and political concerns. Indeed, the historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in their history of climate change denial Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury 2010), argue that climate change denial is rooted in “free market fundamentalism,” much as creationism is rooted in religious fundamentalism.

The scientific consensus on climate change includes a recognition that human-caused climate change will affect the world and our society and that it is possible to mitigate and adapt to its effects, as discussed in “Climate Change 101”. But the scientific consensus is not capable of determining the proper response to climate change. What actions, if any, ought to be taken in response to climate change — and who is to foot the bill — are simply not questions that science alone is able to decide.

But climate change deniers often interpret climate science in general, and climate change education in particular, as ideologically based and economically motivated: aimed at endorsing particular policies in response to climate change, benefiting particular sectors of industry or classes of society at the expense of others, or even attacking the ideas of capitalism, the free market, and national sovereignty and favoring the ideas of socialism, collective ownership, and world government — or, in the most extreme cases, neo-pagan nature-worship.

These ideas resonate with a particular set of political views, and there is a strong, widely reported, and extensively researched correlation between political conservatism and climate change denial in the United States (see, e.g., McCright and Dunlap, “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming, 2001—2010” (PDF), The Sociological Quarterly 2011). With local school boards usually, and state boards of education often, filled by electoral contest, it is hard to avoid the influence of partisan politics on climate change education in the United States.

In countering the second pillar, it is crucial to emphasize that there are sound reasons to teach the scientific consensus on climate change. Science teachers have a responsibility to help their students understand, to the extent appropriate, the central methods and results of contemporary science. There is substantial scientific agreement around climate change. Science teachers thus have a responsibility to help their students understand climate change, the evidence for climate change, and the fact that the scientific community agrees that the evidence is convincing.

The National Association of Geoscience Teachers, for example, endorses teaching about climate change, recognizing, “(1) that Earth’s climate is changing, (2) that present warming trends are largely the result of human activities, and (3) that teaching climate change science is a fundamental and integral part of earth science education,” and adding, “a current and comprehensive level of understanding of the science and teaching of climate change is essential to effective education.”

Two subsidiary points are also useful in countering the second pillar. They are subsidiary because, in the end, they presuppose — correctly — that there are sound reasons to teach the scientific consensus on climate change, but they are worth bearing in mind because they help to allay concerns associated with the second pillar.

First, it is helpful to explain that climate change education is not aimed at endorsing particular policies in response to climate change. It is important for climate change educators to respect the fact that science on its own is not capable of deciding policy issues. Science classrooms are not a proper venue for political debates, and teachers in the public schools ought to refrain from using their positions as pulpits to voice their personal preferences about public policy. The National Science Teachers Association’s position statement on teaching science and technology in the context of societal and personal issues is consistent with such a recommendation.

Nevertheless, it is clearly useful to discuss climate policy issues — in particular, what, if anything, should be done to reduce or mitigate climate change — in the science classroom. Integrating a discussion of solutions to climate change within a presentation of the relevant science, helps to retain student interest and to allay student disquiet, as discussed in “Making it Relevant.” But again, the goal of such a discussion is to help students learn the science, not to convince them of the advantages or disadvantages of any particular policy.

Second, it is helpful to explain that acceptance of climate change is not inexorably linked to any political ideology or economic interest. For example:

  • There are conservatives who accept climate change. Such conservatives even include leading climate change scientists such as Kerry Emanuel, described by the Los Angeles Times (January 5, 2011) as “a politically conservative climatologist who accepts the broad scientific consensus on global warming.” Groups like Republicans for Environmental Protection are attempting to convince political conservatives to respect the scientific consensus while advocating for conservative values to play a role in debates over climate policy.
  • Big business accepts climate change. Consider the United States Climate Action Partnership, in which major companies such as Alcoa, Chrysler, and General Electric join leading environmental groups in lobbying for climate legislation, or the financial services company Allianz, which coproduced a 2005 report with the World Wildlife Fund on the implications of climate change for the financial industry.
  • The United States armed forces and national security agencies accept climate change. In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, for instance, the Department of Defense acknowledged (PDF) the “need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on our facilities and military capabilities,” adding that climate change “may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict … around the world.” The Department of Homeland Security similarly concluded (PDF) that “[c]limate change has the potential to accelerate and intensify extreme weather events which threaten the nation’s stability and security.”

It is impossible to provide a complete guide to countering every claim advanced to support the idea that acceptance of climate change is driven by radical ideological motivations and leads to undesirable social consequences, of course. But the links below and discussion above ought to provide a good start for countering the second pillar of climate change denial.

To learn more about the third pillar and how to respond to it, continue to It’s unfair to disregard the scientific consensus on climate change.

Further reading

“Cool Dudes: The Denial of Climate Change among Conservative White Males in the United States” (PDF) is a 2011 paper by sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, published in Global Environmental Change. The authors explore the social and psychological reasons why conservative white men are especially prone to climate change denial in the US.

“Pawlenty: Running from His Past Moves on Environmental Policy” is a report from Coral Davenport of The National Journal (June 23, 2011) on conservative former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, noting that climate change was “a signature of his administration and of his 2007-08 tenure as head of the National Governors Association. … Along the way, he won other Republicans over to the cause.” As the story explains, many other conservative leaders vying for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 had backed climate change, but like Pawlenty, recanted their views during the campaign.

“Bad science: Global-warming deniers are a liability to the conservative cause” is a column by Jonathan Kay of the National Post (July 15, 2010). Kay, a conservative columnist, fears that the “nonsense” of climate change denial “has come to bathe the whole movement in its increasingly crankish, conspiratorial glow,” threatening the planet and the conservative cause.

“2006 Corporate Governance and Climate Change: Making the Connection” is a report from Ceres, a nonprofit investor coalition focused on addressing climate change. The report surveys how 100 companies are integrating climate change into long-term plans, from the boardroom to the accounting department. “Companies at the vanguard no longer question how much it will cost to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but how much money they can make doing it,” the report finds.

“The Insurance Industry and climate change” (PDF) is a report on climate change from CEOs of eighty of the largest insurance and reinsurance companies in the world, a group known as the Geneva Association. It opens with a clear statement: “climate change is happening … The prospect of extreme climate change and its potentially devastating economic and social consequences are of great concern to the insurance industry.”

“National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces” is a report from the National Academy of Sciences, commissioned by the US Navy, examining how climate change would affect naval vessels, how climate change and changes to ocean chemistry would affect submarine warfare, and how climate change could exacerbate military and humanitarian threats.

A joint letter from 33 retired generals and admirals (PDF) declaring, “climate change is making the world a more dangerous place,” and urging political leaders to “enact strong climate and energy legislation to reduce carbon pollution.”

“CIA Opens Center on Climate Change and National Security” is a press release from 2009, announcing a new unit of the Central Intelligence Agency focused on the implications of climate change for national security.

National Security & Climate Change is a collection of reports and testimony about the national security implications of climate change, collected by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change).

“The Marines Go Renewable” is a report by David Roberts for Outside magazine (December 2011), looking at how the US Marine Corps is “the bravest new recruit in the clean-energy revolution.”