Will Climate Denial, Like, Ever End?

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This week, as the Heartland Institute commences its annual conference, the organization is clearly back on its heels. Funders, experts, and even some staff are bailing, reports The Guardian. Apparently pushed into defensive mode by Peter Gleick and his attempt to expose its funding, the Institute struck back with its ill-advised “you guys are kinda like madmen and murderers” billboard campaign—and, as they say, the rest is history.

Or is it?

If Heartland didn’t exist, wouldn’t some other organization simply take its place? And won’t Heartland itself weather this storm? After all, new funders, like the Heritage Foundation and the Illinois Coal Association, have sprung to the institute’s defense. (Whatever else you might say about conservatives, they know how to support the team.)

I think the only conclusion that one can reach is that while Heartland might be flailing right now, climate denial itself is far, far from over.

Let’s think about this in perspective, and start with the good news.

On the one hand, those of us who stand up for science on this issue can cite a stunning amount of progress over the years. Time was, after all, when U.S. fossil fuel industry majors were united in a climate “skeptic” stance, under the aegis of the anti-Kyoto Global Climate Coalition. Nowadays, in contrast, even ExxonMobil has dropped off as a chief source of support for the climate denial machine—see investigative reporter Steve Coll’s great new book on this–and the extreme to which the Heartland Institute went with its billboards says a great deal about the intellectual weakness of the climate denial case today.

The denial of global warming is no longer mainstream within corporate America or the fossil fuel industry, then–and that can only be considered a major achievement.

And yet at the same time, it is stronger than ever among Tea Partiers and the Republican Party itself. And this fact–that these traditional industry allies have themselves diverged with industry on the matter–surely demonstrates that this is not really a live scientific issue any longer. It is a political issue.

Accordingly, we are far past the point that any amount of science can resolve it. Nor, for that matter, can the individual blunders of denialist think tanks, or exposes about their funding sources, do the trick.

Don’t get me wrong—all of this stuff helps. All of this is necessary to the fight. It’s just that in the grand scheme, it isn’t the kind of thing that will make climate denial finally go away (either because the deniers finally cop to reality, or because their view becomes marginalized, and thus ceases to be taken seriously in the media and by politicians).

To understand how to ultimately defeat climate denial, you first have to understand what it is: motivated reasoning on behalf of individualist values. What this means is that libertarian types–often white and male–who have decided that the climate issue is something that environmentalists concocted to impose global socialism will come up with any reason to attack the science that their minds can create. And the human mind can create an awful lot of reasons. Especially among the intelligent.

To stop climate denial, then, one would have to cut off its raison d’etre. You have to take away the motivation behind the reasoning—the emotional impulse that drives all this–so that individualist energies (which, likely, will always be with us) can burn themselves up somewhere else.

Individualists have fought many political battles in the past—this is just one of them. There is a constant dance to determine how vigorously the government regulates industry, say, or guns—and how much it backs off. In twenty years, with the climate debate resolved politically, it’s very easy to imagine the Heartland types today with a completely different policy agenda, one having nothing to do with climate change whatsoever.

What would lead to that outcome? I’m afraid it’s a paradox. What seems to me the most obvious denial killer is precisely what we’re fighting over in the first place–namely, a national law in the U.S. to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, either through cap and trade or a carbon tax, or some other blended type of policy. Get that in place, and let it become the new normal, and finally, I think, your deniers would largely disappear (or be relegated to the fringe).

Why? In this scenario, there would be no more political oxygen for them to breathe. The status quo would be aligned against them, rather than for them. The lack of a policy solution is what’s keeping them going and keeping them relevant; legislating one would change the terms of the debate in a way that no amount of science, and no amount of blundering on the part of deniers, could do.

Don’t get me wrong: I think a lot of deniers would never change their opinions. There would be people griping about such a law decades after it passed, saying it was based on phony science. But there would be a shifted status quo, and for the most part, a new generation of libertarian individualists would consume themselves elsewhere, rather than here.

The question, then, continues to be how to achieve policy action on the climate issue. And of course, given U.S. elections, the solution appears no nearer than it ever has…or does it?

We’re moving into summer, and then hurricane season, in a year that set staggering heat records in March. There’s no telling what the weather will be like; but weather has always been the wild card in the climate debate, and the single most powerful agenda setter. So it may be that unpredictable events make global warming a mega campaign issue down the stretch—and finally set a serious policy solution in motion. 

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