Conservatism and Scientific Data in the Climate Debate

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A viable conservative approach to environmental policy must be rooted in science.

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Why is it that if you characterize yourself as “very conservative,” you are twenty times more likely to be dismissive of the threat of climate change than if you consider yourself “very liberal”? Or that if you are a Republican, you are four and a half times as likely to be dismissive about climate change than alarmed? And that if you are a Democrat, you are seven times as likely to be alarmed than dismissive? How is it that political beliefs are so strongly predictive of beliefs about a purely scientific issue?

Climate change does not touch upon closely-held theological views, like evolution, and climate change is not an ultimately unresolvable moral issue, like reproductive rights. Simply put, either we are changing the Earth’s climate or we are not. That is an empirical question, albeit with enormous complexities. But the climate change polls seem to suggest that people skim over the scientific complexities and just treat the question as if it were an unresolvable moral or political dilemma. Why?

Environmental issues—particularly climate change—seem to make people feel something powerful, sometimes crowding out cooler thinking. Environmental issues have a way of communicating not just some dry scientific facts, but implicitly challenging some fundamental assumptions and beliefs about industrial society.

Our industrial society has created both wealth and harms unimaginable only a few decades ago. What people feel about environmental issues seems inextricably tied up in what people feel about industrial progress. Perhaps what is so frightening about climate change is not its potentially catastrophic consequences, but what it means to our identities as members of a productive society.

People of the post-World War II era possessed the sense that they had pushed American life forward, and some of us bear the guilt of having been part of a succeeding generation that, saddled with selfishness, narcissism, and infighting, has squandered the opportunities our predecessors sacrificed so much to obtain. What if the moral of that story were turned on its head, and it was our grandfathers who are to blame for rushing blindly into a fossil-fuel-fired society, irresponsibly ignoring its environmental implications? What if instead of being providers, the greatest generation actually mortgaged the future of its children and grandchildren?

Maybe climate change is just the most recent, the most emotional, and the most morally-tinged chapter of an ongoing political debate about whether the greatest generation really was the greatest generation, or whether it will prove to be the generation that has doomed the world to an anarchic and impoverished future. That starts to sound more like a political and moral drama, rather than the pursuit of a dry scientific question.

Unfortunately, these kinds of questions are harder to resolve, and our current polity seems especially unwilling to resolve anything. It is discouraging, given how little conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, seem to have to say to each other. There is no easy way out of this morass, but there is one response that is sure to be helpful: focus on data. Be remorselessly and persistently data driven. It is one thing to have a tint on one’s glasses, be it green or greenback. But progress on environmental issues will require all of us to fight our way out of an emotional trap that environmental issues lay for all of us. It is cognitively easier to feel than it is to think, and that is precisely the problem. Breaking out of familiar patterns and being less predictable requires the discipline of thinking before feeling.

Most importantly, being data-driven means turning toward, and not away from science. It has been a strategic mistake for conservative Republicans to allow themselves to be portrayed as hostile to science. Being a critical consumer of information is one thing; issuing, as Senator James Inhofe’s office has, an 84-page report on supposedly “fraudulent science,” culminating in a blacklist of seventeen scientists that should be prosecuted for perpetrating a fraud, is another thing.

There used to be a principled link between conservatism and science. It was born of a counterproductive—and annoying—inclination of some liberals to gravitate towards postmodernism. Put simply, postmodernism is a persistent skepticism towards “metanarratives” – grand, reductionist explanations growing out of the hard and biological sciences, and the somewhat hard social sciences of economics and political science. Instead, postmodernists insisted that these supposedly concrete facts were really just social constructs, not fact at all. Postmodernists persistently questioned assertions of fact, doubting their universality, as a way of challenging power. As postmodernism grew and penetrated fields from art to architecture to politics, postmodernist liberals found themselves shunned, even in academia. The natural response on the part of conservatives to liberal postmodernism was to reject the extreme relativism of postmodernism, and to embrace empiricism.

For decades, being conservative meant being more data-driven and fact-specific, and taking the high road on scientific issues. This is no longer true. MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel, once a prominent Republican, and now the recipient of death threats for his work on climate change, has tired of Republican attacks not just on his science, but his integrity and even his family.

A conservative vision of the environment, moving forward, must be data-driven, and must be grounded in science. Science is the only touchstone that could be objective and fair. If we—liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between—choose, consciously or unconsciously, to sift our beliefs through some sort of an emotional filter, we resign ourselves to deciding everything while debating nothing.

Shi-Ling Hsu

Shi-Ling Hsu is a professor of law at the Florida State University College of Law.  He specializes in environmental and natural resource law and is the author of The Case for a Carbon Tax: Getting Past Our Hang-ups to Effective Climate Policy (Island Press, 2011).