How Climate Politics Undermines Climate Science
Climate change skepticism is a curious phenomenon. While there is plenty of uncertainty among scientists as to exactly how climate change will unfold and how much impact different human activities will have, the phenomenon we understand as “climate denial” is uniquely American. One could argue that it underscores the parochialism of the right-wing American outlook, as though the United States is exempted from realities that govern the rest of the world.
But one could also take climate denialism seriously as a matter of political psychology, if not as a matter of scientific debate. And perhaps this is the more charitable and fruitful route. While fossil fuel companies and their friendly scientists may, out of cynical self-interest, purposely sow doubt on climate change, average skeptics have no particular stake in whether or not climate change is true. They must have other reasons.
In some ways, climate change is a problem uniquely ill-fitted for American society and politics to resolve. Almost everything it seems to implicate — cars, beef, oil, suburban sprawl — is American. The average right-leaning climate skeptic probably wonders, perhaps even unconsciously, “how could it be that a genuine scientific theory would just-so-happen to perfectly cry out for left-wing policies and precisely target my preferred way of life?” From that perspective, climate change looks like too good a problem to be true.
But scientific fact isn’t political. It’s true that beef, cars, and low-density living produce higher carbon emissions than most of their substitutes. And it is true that higher emissions leads to higher global temperatures.
But choosing how to respond is a political question, and in the wake of the Green New Deal there is little doubt that many on the left see climate change as a pretext for their preferred policies. The anti-environmentalist pejorative “watermelon” — green on the outside, red on the inside — has in some cases been validated. Here’s Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s then-chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, quoted in a Washington Post profile:
The interesting thing about the Green New Deal is it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all. Do you guys think of it as a climate thing? Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.
This is not an example of quote mining or taking a breezy comment out of context. A similar argument can be found in globalization critic Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. And last month, Klein released a book called On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.
Another example is a 2009 political cartoon that famously made the rounds ahead of the Copenhagen climate conference. It depicts a speaker rattling off a list of climate policy goals — sustainability, renewables, livable cities — and a skeptic in the audience demanding “what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson requested a signed copy for her office.
It doesn’t take much to turn this into “climate change is a suspiciously convenient pretext for left-wing policy.” Few oppose livable cities, a sustainable economy, or clean energy in theory. But in their complex particulars, these are transformative visions that go far beyond the seemingly technocratic goal of reducing carbon emissions. Taking into account all the costs and benefits, many do not think they constitute a “better world.”
Some argue that nothing short of economic transformation will be sufficient to meet the necessary carbon reduction goals. Perhaps that will turn out to be true. But others seem too eager to run with it.
Science does not demand the excesses of the Green New Deal and other left-wing approaches to climate policy, or even the caricatures of those excesses — banning beef or flying, dismantling and replacing capitalism — any more than the hole in the ozone layer demanded a prohibition on refrigeration.
However, while the left’s treatment of this issue imperils its credibility, that’s separate from the core scientific question, which is uncertain in many details but generally settled — just as evolution is settled, despite there still being much to learn. The political implications of man-made global warming are utterly immaterial to the question of its reality.
The left should not have a monopoly on climate policy. The fact that they essentially do is partly the fault of conservatives, who have largely chosen denial and ridicule over engagement. But the partisan split over climate change is also the fault of progressives who treat the issue foremost as an expansive political license.