LAST YEAR, THE LEADERS OF THE WORLD came to the first-ever international agreement on climate change in Paris. It was a huge step for the world — even if it’s a huge step that we should’ve made 20 years ago and should be expanding upon by now — and it’s the first real sign that the world is committed to fighting global man-made climate change. (We posted a quick and easy guide to the deal if you want to learn more.)
Part of the reason this deal was possible is because most of the world has wised up to the extremely serious threat posed by climate change, and has acknowledged that something needs to be done about it. But there’s one country where climate change denial is still commonplace. And, unfortunately, it’s the country that probably matters the most.
The US: The worldwide leader in climate-change denial.
A 2014 report by Ipsos Mori, a marketing firm, found that the United States is the country that is, by a good margin, the country where people are most likely to disagree with the statement, “The climate change we are currently seeing is largely the result of human activity.” The countries that are runners-up are the UK and Australia.
Plenty of other world countries have disagreements over the best way to tackle climate change — there are arguments as to whether the burden should fall mostly on the developed world rather than the developing world, there are arguments over whether we should toy with climate engineering or not, and there are arguments over whether we should focus on renewable energy rather than clean-but-potentially-still-dangerous nuclear energy.
But most countries are no longer entertaining the debate as to whether or not man-made climate change is real. Most countries accepted that fact long ago. But the Republican Party in the United States remains one of the last true bastions in the world of climate denial.
Conservatism and anti-environmentalism do not inevitably go hand-in-hand.
It would be too easy to say that the reason that climate change is so broadly denied in the United States is because conservatism is more opposed to science, and that conservatives are less concerned with the environment. That’s just not really the case. Being right-wing and being an environmentalist are not mutually exclusive positions.
A recent study from the University of Bergen in Norway found that the US Republican Party is the only major conservative party in the world that rejects the problems presented by climate change. And this has changed significantly over time — 30 years ago, conservative superhero Ronald Reagan supported and signed the Montreal Protocol, to date, the world’s most successful environmental treaty.
Indeed, one of the conservative positions that’s the source of some of the most virulent, racist right-wing rhetoric — anti-immigration — actually has had strong historical ties to the environmental movement. Many of the country’s most prominent anti-immigrant organizations (including a number of SPLC-designated hate groups) were founded by a single man, a Michigan optometrist by the name of John Tanton. Tanton first became interested in preventing immigration while interested in issues like conservation and stopping population growth. One of the most famous environmentalists in the past 50 years, Edward Abbey (who, some contend, is the founder of modern eco-terrorism) was also anti-immigration.
The argument used by some right-wing environmentalists is that people living in developed countries have larger environmental footprints, and thus, when immigrants move from the lower-impact countries to higher-impact countries, they increase their carbon footprints, thus contributing more to environmental problems.
Environmentalism does not inevitably belong to the left. It easily bridges ideological divides. So why isn’t this happening in the United States?
The real cause of climate change denial.
In the end, the real reason that climate change denial is so broadly accepted in the United States may be that we’re just really, really polarized as a country.
Recent studies have found that conservatives are actually less likely to believe in climate change the more scientifically literate they are. The reason for this, in short, is because identity is stronger than reason, and if a scientific truth conflicts with your identity, it’s often easier to just reject the truth than change your identity. The most obvious example of this is the rejection of evolution by religious fundamentalists, but it happens on the left, too: think of the anti-vaccination movement, the anti-GMO movement, and even astrology (liberals are twice as likely as conservatives to believe in astrology). In short, if an issue is tied to someone’s idea of who they are as a person, you’re going to have a much, much harder time convincing them to change their minds on that issue.
But how did climate denial become so ingrained in the Republican identity when a mere 30 years ago Ronald Reagan was fighting climate change?
Two things happened: the first is that the fossil fuel industry got really smart about how it spent its money. Republicans are generally in favor of free markets, and in the rest of the world, the common sense, pro-free market argument is that climate change is going to be really, really expensive, and so it makes sense to try and mitigate its worst effects.
But the fossil fuel industry is gigantic in the US. The infamous Koch Brothers, founders of Koch Industries (originally a petrochemical company, now with its fingers in a dozen other industries as well), has given $79 million to climate change denial groups. They’ve also developed cozy relationships with Fox News, the most influential conservative news source in the country, which also happens to be run by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, both climate deniers.
Using this power and influence, they successfully managed to convince conservatives that environmental regulations, rather than being a good long-term investment, would actually be a job-killer, especially in the giant fossil fuel industry.
Lest you think this is sounding too much like a conspiracy, the left-wing did not do itself any favors: the country became extremely polarized in the Bush years, and even worse under President Obama. Democrats were much quicker to speak out against climate change, and considering how much Republicans disliked Democrats, this made it easy to paint climate change as a “Democratic issue” rather than a global one. It didn’t help that its most prominent spokesperson was former Democratic Presidential candidate, Al Gore. In tying environmental regulations to the conservatives’ much-hated concept of “big government,” and by attaching it to much-hated liberal boogeymen like Al Gore and Barack Obama, the oil industry — which, we now know, knew about and accepted climate change as a reality nearly 40 years ago — effectively turned climate denial into a core element of conservative identity, thus rendering science completely useless.
Fortunately, there is good news
The good news is that climate change denial appears to be decreasing in the United States. While most of the Republican Presidential candidates for 2016 are climate deniers, at least 2, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have both said that they think climate change is real — they just don’t think we should do anything about it. Because, as Rubio said, “We are not going to destroy our economy, make America a harder place to create jobs, in order to pursue a policy that will do nothing, nothing to change our climate, to change our weather.”
But it may be that Republicans as a whole are already well ahead of their candidates. A recent poll found that 54% of Republicans believe in manmade climate change, and now, 12 Republicans in the US House of Representatives are pushing a resolution that seeks to reach across the aisle to solve climate change.
So while the current Republican Presidential field leaves a lot to be desired, Republicans as a whole are wising up. And this, along with the climate deal in Paris last year, shows that there may yet be hope for saving the world from the worst consequences of climate change.