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February 20, 2014 1:16 PM Polarization and Climate Change Denial

By Ed Kilgore

Having written a post earlier today suggesting (along with The Monkey Cage’s Rob Ford) that a relative lack of ideological polarization hasn’t been particularly good for British politics, I’d offer a contrary data point: polarization seems to have made any sort of action on climate change increasingly difficult throughout the English-speaking world, even in Britain. The Guardian’s Seumas Milne spells it out:

[W]hat should be a pressing debate about how to head off global calamity has been reframed in the media as a discussion about whether industrial-driven climate change is in fact taking place at all - as if it were a matter of opinion rather than science.
The impact of this phoney controversy during an economic crisis has been dramatic: in the US, the proportion of the population accepting burning fossil fuels drives climate change dropped from 71% to 44% between 2007 and 2011. In Britain, the numbers who believe the climate isn’t changing at all rose from 4% to 19% between 2005 and 2013 (though the floods seem to be correcting that).
The problem is at its worst in the Anglo-Saxon world - which has also historically made the largest contribution to pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Take Australia, which is afflicted by longer and hotter heatwaves, drought and bushfires. Nevertheless, its rightwing prime minister Tony Abbott dismisses any link with climate change, which he described as crap, and has pledged to repeal a carbon tax on the country’s 300 biggest polluters. The move was hailed by his political soulmate, the Canadian prime minister and tar sands champion Stephen Harper, as an important message to the world. And in the US, climate change denial now has the Republican party in its grip.

Why is this happening? Some of it’s about powerful lobbies, but some is simply about a conservative ideology that can no longer accommodate concern for the environment:

Part of the answer is in the influence of some of the most powerful corporate interests in the world: the oil, gas and mining companies that have strained every nerve to head off the threat of effective action to halt the growth of carbon emissions, buying legislators, government ministers, scientists and thinktanks in the process. In the US, hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate and billionaires’ cash (including from the oil and gas brothers Koch) has been used to rubbish climate change science. That is also happening on a smaller scale elsewhere, including Britain.
But climate change denial is also about ideology. Many deniers have come to the conclusion that climate change is some kind of leftwing conspiracy - because the scale of the international public intervention necessary to cut carbon emissions in the time demanded by the science simply cannot be accommodated within the market-first, private enterprise framework they revere. As Joseph Bast, the president of the conservative US Heartland Institute told the writer and campaigner Naomi Klein: for the left, climate change is “the perfect thing”, a justification for doing everything it “wanted to do anyway”.
When it comes to the incompatibility of effective action of averting climate disaster with their own neoliberal ideology, the deniers are absolutely right. In the words of Nicholas Stern’s 2006 report, climate change is “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen”.

Climate change, in other words, is a massive challenge to the world view of people who can’t accept the limitations of markets. Of all the examples of “epistemic closure” on the Right, this is probably the biggest, and certainly the most significant. So we’ve marched backwards during the last few years from “what to do” on this subject to whether it’s a legitimate topic for discussion at all. And that’s a tragic change that perhaps less polarization might have prevented.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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