I was recently informed that scientists are wrong when they tell us that carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming. This is nothing new. The denial of basic science has been around for a long time, and here in the United States, it fits in with a broader anti-intellectualism that goes back to our early days. But every once in a while, something original comes along. The person I was arguing with declared that CO2 cannot warm the Earth since it cools rapidly when mixed with air.
At first, I took that to be word salad elevated to an art form. Then I realized that the person who said it believes that concerns about anthropogenic climate change come from the temperatures of the gases emerging from tailpipes.
Moments like that expose me as a true liberal. Was he confused about the extent to which the heat-island effect influences climate? It is a tiny part of the total, though some deniers claim to the contrary, but perhaps he had conflated topics.
Of course, I am making too many allowances here. As many comments in the discussion revealed — particularly the continual insistence that “communism” means anything the person does not like and that “fascism” is a left-wing philosophy — that his assertion came out of ignorance, willful or otherwise. This, unsurprisingly, was also the discussion in which the same person agreed with the “die on your own; I’m not paying for it” attitude that I discussed earlier.
This condition of intellectual vapors leads easily to the kind of exasperation illustrated in Isaac Asimov’s famous line that “people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do,” but that gets us nowhere. Smugness wins little support, and as New York Times columnist David Brooks said in a recent segment of PBS NewsHour, “most people vote on cultural identity, not on material benefits.” And not on facts and logic, as I have witnessed over and over.
Human beings process the world through narratives fundamentally, and reasoning often gets started in the stories that we tell ourselves. But in contemporary politics, too many along all positions of the spectrum have given up even the veneer of caring about being grounded in evidence, much less a commitment to revise their thinking whenever facts and logic insist on that.
What is it that makes the science of climate change threatening to the tribal narrative of the right wing? As mentioned above, Americans have long had a suspicion of experts, of intellectuals who tell the world that they know something that is not commonly comprehended in detail. Given our history of having revolted against a king who claimed the right to rule by birth, this makes a kind of sense. And more than that, we should pause before accepting assertions to ask the persons pushing them to show their work.
However, expertise is real, and with the constraints on our time that life imposes, a bonafide expert deserves more of our attention. I often pose the following question to illustrate my point here: If you are having chest pains, do you want me to take you to a cardiologist, or do you want me to bring over my plumber’s helper and see what I can do? If we get a diagnosis of cancer, it is worth asking for a second opinion, and good doctors will not disagree. But in a medical emergency, when death is imminent, caution is a luxury, and going with proved solutions makes sense.
We are in an environmental crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the coming catastrophe if we continue with current emissions is but the latest in the total body of evidence that we are heating the Earth to levels that will be destructive to human civilization. There is no reasonable doubt any more.
But climate science — and science generally — is perceived as a threat to the tribal identity among the right wing. Rights are supposedly granted to us by the Christian god who created the world in six days, government action is taken as contrary to freedom, and expertise is contrary to the desire to figure out the world intuitively. Reaching all who align with this kind of thinking is impossible.
That is no excuse to give up. There is, for example, a movement among evangelicals to see protecting the environment as a fulfillment of the command to be stewards of the Earth. The one-time burning of natural resources is contrary to the meaning of “conservative” and contrary to the principle of individualism, since it makes us rely on the corporations that supply the fuels. Whether or not the pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is ruining the planet for us, the profligate consumption of one’s resources with no thought to their renewal is difficult to square with a desire for a great country.
As I said, many on the right are beyond the influence of reason. But enough are not, and in a nation in which elections so often turn on a few votes, we do not need to sway large numbers. The test of who can or cannot be won over is how true the person is to the stated values of the political right, and we should hold them to the principles that they claim to stand on.