It’s Not the Reactionaries So Much as the Elites They Listen To

Twitter isn’t the best place for reasoned discussion, but depending on who you follow, it isn’t a vast, superficial wasteland either. One of the cool things it offers is the occasional tweetstorm that benefits from directness and immediacy.

Here, slightly edited, is what David Roberts, who writes about climate and energy for Vox, had to say in thirty or so tweets yesterday:

Ever since climate became a political issue in the US, one of the most ubiquitous topics of climate discussion has been “how can conservatives be persuaded to accept climate science and join in the productive search for solutions?” I have read, no joke, MILLIONS of words on that subject. Been following that conversation long enough to notice it has certain recurring features.

The weirdest aspect is that it almost always treats conservatives and their denial as a kind of feature of the landscape, like a mountain. It’s something that just IS, something other people have to maneuver around, or overcome, or otherwise deal with. It is not treated as a CHOICE, made by grown-ass adults who could choose differently, for which they are responsible.

Another (related) weird aspect is, it’s almost always treated as something that the right’s political opponents *caused*. Al Gore caused it. Strident rhetoric or “alarmism” caused it. Enviro aversion to nuclear power (or CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage], or geoengineering) caused it.

It’s always discussed as a result of something enviros or the left did–and something they could undo, if they just acted/talked right. “If environmentalists stopped doing [thing that personally annoys me], they’d be winning over the right” is a *ubiquitous* template.

But it’s bullshit. The question of what shapes conservative opinion is not some deep mystery about which your gut impulses carry any insight. It’s an intensely studied question in social science and has been, as least to a decent approximation, answered. I recommend this post, summarizing John Zaller’s book The Nature & Origins of Mass Opinion. To *very* briefly summarize: people don’t know anything; they don’t have strong opinions on political “issues”; they form opinions by following the cues of leaders in their various social tribes. We are social creatures; tribal ties (not “issues”) are primary.

So conservatives believe what conservatives believe. And they find out what conservatives believe from conservative elites.That means conservative politicians, celebs, and local leaders, but especially, in US conservatism circa 2017, *media figures*. Conservative media plays an *enormous* role in shaping conservative opinion and has dragged it steadily rightward.

So we can say with confidence that conservatives deny climate change because that’s what conservative political/media elites do. Elite cues are what matter. It follows that the *only* reliable way to get conservatives to stop denying climate change is for conservative political/media elites to stop. That’s it.

You might think that Al Gore should STFU, enviros should support nuclear, green journalists should avoid “doomism” and all the other things that VSPs [Very Serious Persons] are always scolding greens for. Fine. Think what you want. Scold away.

But there is no evidence, and no reason to think, that any of those changes would have any material effect on conservative climate denialism. Conservatives will change their tune on climate when the people they see on Fox & Breitbart change their tune. Until then, clever arguments and magic words (“national security!” “conserving God’s gift!”) are futile for everything except meeting think-piece word counts.

Conservative elites and media are to blame for conservative ignorance and obstruction on climate. Not greens, not Democrats, not Al Gore, not That Guy on Twitter. What they are doing is a monstrous crime that will directly result in enormous suffering. And they are grown-ass adults fully capable of understanding the consequences. They are responsible for their own actions and deserve to be called out for them.

Basically, conservative elites are to blame for climate paralysis and only conservative elites can change it. I don’t like it, but there it is. Step one for everyone ought to be telling the damn truth about it. Quit finding “clever,” “counterintuitive” ways to blame others, FFS. As Ornstein and Mann said (more broadly, but it applies here as well), “Republicans are the problem”.

Of course, in the case of global warming, Republicans are only part of the problem. The big problem is global warming itself, combined with how unlikely it is that we will stop it from getting worse. What scientists have predicted for decades is coming to pass. The world is getting hotter; the atmosphere has more moisture in it; the oceans are rising; the ice is receding; the permafrost is melting; storms and heat waves are intensifying. We are polluting the planet to a dangerous degree and it’s coming back to bite us, too quickly for us to stop it, yet too slowly to make everyone feel the urgency of the problem. 

Later, I saw that David Roberts presented his thoughts more formally in an article with a long title: “As Hurricanes and Wildfires Rage, US Climate Politics Enters the Realm of Farce: Climate Denial Is Less Credible, But More Powerful, Than Ever”.

But if you want to get really depressed, take a look at The Guardian‘s “This Is How Your World Could End”. If the author is correct, it’s not out of the question that the earth’s surface may become too hot for mammals. The good news is that many other living things would survive, including birds, who handle heat better than we do.