Skeptics and Scare Stories
Climate change is caused by emissions, not epistemology.
This morning, the Texas Lyceum released highlights from its annual poll, a barometer of Texan public opinion about critical policy issues facing the state and the nation. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of directors of the Texas Lyceum; however, I’m not involved in the polling process.) The full results won’t be released until tomorrow, but looking through the executive summary, this year’s results are consistent with my impressions from previous years. Most of the highlights make sense in light of concurrent statewide political debates, if not in reference to data. Once again, for example, Texans are concerned about immigration: In response to an open-ended question, 24 percent of respondents offered that as the number one issue facing the state, and 62 percent support the Legislature’s decision to spend $800 million on border security in the next two years. A couple of results suggest that many Texans are either ominously muddled or willfully contrarian. Only 14 percent of respondents think that the aforementioned border security spending will be “very effective,” which is strange considering that 42 percent of the same respondents specified that they support the plan “strongly,” not just “somewhat.”
At the same time, this year’s Lyceum poll includes a couple of surprising results. Texans may be grappling with some confusion about the causes and effects of illegal immigration. But when it comes to climate change, Texans are making a lot more sense than one might think. From the executive summary:
“Global warming is not a top concern for Texans. When asked if they personally worry about climate change, 50% say ‘only a little’ or ‘not at all.’ But when asked ‘would you support or oppose Congress passing new legislation that would regulate energy output from private companies in an attempt to reduce global warming,’ 67% of Texans said they would support such regulation.”
For the record, though I’m not a scientist, I don’t doubt the scientific consensus that climate change is real and anthropogenic. At the same time, I don’t often feel oppressed by other people’s metaphysical and epistemological premises, and I rarely see a need to litigate such questions before policy discussions. If the premise is relevant to a given debate, in my experience, it will quickly come to light. If clarifications are needed, they can be elicited easily enough. Occasionally, for example, I’ve had occasion to ask legislators if they believe that human life begins at conception. I’ve never asked any of them how old they think the planet is; I don’t see why that question would even come up during the course of reporting.
Here’s an example that some readers might be appalled by: I can recall plenty of interviews that included some discussion of our global climate and climate change, and as a reporter based in Texas I’ve obviously had tons of conversations about energy and the environment more generally. But I also can’t recall asking any elected officials if they believe in anthropogenic climate change. I’ve asked people why they don’t believe in climate change; that was an interesting exercise. But I’m hard-pressed to think of a scenario where I would find it relevant to ask Greg Abbott whether he believes in anthropogenic climate change.
According to many environmentalists, journalists who fail to ask such questions are being wantonly negligent about their responsibilities to the public interest. The question itself has assumed a moral dimension far greater than is typically associated with earth science inquiries. The intuition seems to be that officials who publicly question or privately doubt the empirical literature about anthropogenic climate change, and journalists who fail to hold them accountable for it, are an intractable barrier to the international community’s effort to tackle this enormous and consequential problem. I think the environmentalists who take this view of things are generally well-intended. But I also think they’re wrong. As I wrote earlier this year, polls have consistently shown that even in the United States, a large majority of Americans believe in climate change. The ones who don’t may be vocal, but I’m skeptical of any account of an international collective action problem that hinges on the supposed power of some loudmouths in one country. As I wrote in April: “The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that American climate skepticism is a red herring, a scapegoat, or a useful foil.” Slowing climate change, after all, isn’t the easiest task imaginable. It would require drastic reductions in total global emissions of greenhouse gases; that would require most of the world’s industrialized nations to commit to major changes in their current consumption and production—course corrections that most countries would find costly and painful. Denouncing American conservatives for driving their gas-guzzlers all over the common good of humankind? That’s comparatively easy.
It’s one of my more unpopular opinions, but it’s sincere. So is my belief that even if climate advocates are uniformly well-intended, and even if their passionate intensity on the subject is understandably commensurate to the enormity of the problem they’re working to stop, the fixation on the epistemological question has become counterproductive. Just a couple of days ago, the Associated Press announced that it had revised its stylebook to specify that people who diverge from the mainstream consensus should be referred to as “climate doubters,” rather that “climate skeptics” or “climate deniers.” I agree with the Associated Press’s reasoning, partly because, as I learned from the 2011 exercise in which I asked people why they’re at odds with mainstream opinion on this, I found a far more heterogeneous spectrum of opinion than “climate deniers” can fairly capture. But the AP’s announcement was roundly criticized by putatively enlightened eggheads who would rather see a self-perpetuating Manichean binary than let someone like James Inhofe be denounced too gently. As I’ve said, I believe the science; nothing makes me question whether I should be so trusting as much as the kind of back and forth the AP’s Seth Borenstein had with NPR’s Bob Garfield, in the wake of the announcement. Borenstein noted, fairly, that “deniers” has a profoundly pejorative connotation, as in “Holocaust deniers”; the Holocaust was a genocide, but in Garfield’s view, doubts about climate science are pretty bad too: “If the subject is precision, it strikes me that obscuring clear language because of negative associations is a very dangerous accommodation.”
And Garfield is wrong, I think, in his assessment of the danger here. The Lyceum poll helps explain why. Fully half of respondents said that personally, they only worry about climate change a little, or not at all. By itself that might strike some readers as further evidence of the public’s damning complacency in the face of the looming moral crisis. But in the very next question, two-thirds of the respondents said that they’d support further Congressional regulations designed to reduce global warming. Texans may not be fretful about the climate change, and I doubt many of the Lyceum’s respondents have the sober, virtuous gravity that Al Gore brings to the subject.
But if a supermajority of Texas is open to the idea of Congress (Congress!) passing regulations (regulations!) about energy production (energy production!) in order to reduce global warming, I don’t understand how environmentalists can, in good conscience, insist on the premise that the critical barrier to international action is rampant denialism about whether global warming is even real. There are, to be fair, various vested interests that would be adversely affected by whatever regulations Congress might come up with, and would oppose any such proposal for economic reasons. At the same time there’s a scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real, and that it’s caused by greenhouse gas emissions, not opinions. And there’s a reason people seek out scapegoats. If environmentalists want to fight climate change, they should focus on fighting climate change.