Why Republicans deny global warming.

| March 26, 2007 | 48 Replies

Jonathan Chait of Common Dreams raises a good question: why do Republicans disagree with climate scientists more at a time when climate scientists are accruing new terrifying evidence that human activities are truly responsible for warming the atmosphere? 

Last year, the National Journal asked a group of Republican senators and House members: “Do you think it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made problems?” Of the respondents, 23% said yes, 77% said no . . . So, the magazine asked the question again last month. The results? Only 13% of Republicans agreed that global warming has been proved.

As the evidence for global warming gets stronger, Republicans are actually getting more skeptical. . . . How did it get this way? The easy answer is that Republicans are just tools of the energy industry. It’s certainly true that many of them are. . . But the financial relationship doesn’t quite explain the entirety of GOP skepticism on global warming. For one thing, the energy industry has dramatically softened its opposition to global warming over the last year, even as Republicans have stiffened theirs.

The truth is more complicated — and more depressing: A small number of hard-core ideologues (some, but not all, industry shills) have led the thinking for the whole conservative movement . . .Conservatives defer to a tiny handful of renegade scientists who reject the overwhelming professional consensus.

In other words, the thinking process of most Republicans is worse than random.   How is it that more evidence for global warming makes Republicans less convinced?  Chait’s article suggests Republicans are merely being obstinate.  There is a deeper explanation, however, and it has to do with the multiple functions of language.  First, start with the assumption that denying global warming is bad science.  Start there, but don’t end the inquiry there.  Continue the analysis by treating the denial of global warming as dogma

Dogma wears two hats.  First of all, dogmatic words can convey literal meaning that often flies in the face of the evidence.  Consider religious dogma, for instance.   That Mary was a “virgin” is nonsensical; it is even self-disproving.  So why say such a thing?  The answer relates to dogma’s second function: dogma facilitates bonding. 

The assertion of group-approved-nonsense looks and sounds ridiculous to outsiders, but uttering it loudly in the presence of one’s group proves one’s loyalty to those insiders.  The more nonsensical the dogma is, the tighter the bond it is capable of generating among those willing to utter it.  Consider, for instance, the correlation of the absurdity of the dogma and the strength of bonding in Unitarians (less absurd, less bonded) and Mormons (more absurd, more bonded).

Uttering officially-approved nonsense in front of one’s group identifies one as a bona fide member of that group.  Uttering absurd things is a display that one desires to be a member of that group so incredibly much that one is willing to utter the sorts of things that will trigger social ridicule from learned outsiders.  It’s a social version of the peacock’s tail–a display much like the the types of things Darwin pointed out in his theory of sexual selection.  It’s saying “I am willing to pay the price of saying this idiotic thing in order to prove my loyalty to the group.”  It’s a group “badge.” See here , here and here. There are non-verbal versions of dogma too.  Letting one’s pants droop to expose underwear can be a strong sign of group loyalty on the streets; piercing sensitive parts of one’s body facilitates bonding among the like-minded in high schools.

Therefore, uttering nonsensical dogma is not primarily about conveying the truth of the matter asserted. Rather, it’s about sending out a sonar signal in order to identify allies and enemies.  It is a herding mechanism.This deep need to be accepted by a group is so deeply wired into humans that, in most people, it even overcomes the urge to follow evidence where it leads.  Unfortunately, the literal meaning of the dogma doesn’t entirely dissipate.  Therefore, we have lots of Republicans who still refuse to act on the threat of global warming.

To summarize, Mary is a virgin, there are three person in one God, dead people continue to live and, of course, global warming is being dis-proved by new evidence that actually proves it.   Not really, of course.  None of these things is true.  But the utterance of such claims works as a powerful drug among those of us who intensely crave the comfort of a group (interesting note: scientists appear to be less groupish, more independent, and thus less susceptible to dogmatic utterances).

Raising one’s hand to swear allegiance to scientific nonsense is usually done in full view, but such it actually functions like a secret handshake

If you want to feel the glow of acceptance by a big group of Republicans, all you’ve got to do is say the magic phrase: “Global Warming has not been proven.”  Say it just often enough to piss off Democrats.  Don’t say it too often or too loudly, or even the Republicans will think that you’re wierd.  With those magic words denying global warming, you’ll get smiles and pats on the back from total strangers who will buy you drinks and regale you with stories about how they outwitted stupid Democrats; they’ll laugh at your jokes and they’ll tell you that you’re smart.  As long as you keep uttering “Global Warming is hype” (or “Abortion is the same thing as murder” or “Government is incapable of doing anything other than wasting money”), you’ll continue to be invited to continue basking in the warmth of all those new friendships.  And as long as you bask in the warmth of all of those inanities, aggregate power will continue to accrue to the intellectually misguided group.  Bonding is powerful–it enables groups to accompish many things that its members, acting individually, could never accomplish.

Here’s an experment that demonstrates what I’m claiming.  Take a Republican off to the side and talk to him one-on-one.  Be cordial and non-threatening.  He’ll eventually settle down and you’ll find him somewhat reasonable on many topics.  Then allow him to wander back to his group of fellow Republicans and listen to the dogma start to fly again–the same guy who (minutes ago) was starting to make sense (when it was just the two of you) is now spouting nonsense like he’s absolutely sure of himself.  The same thing happens to those many church-goers who pronounce virgin birth to be a certainty, but only while in the company of other church-goers.  On their own, they find the idea of virgin birth to be not interesting (how can that be?) or even nonsensical.  I’ve seen this over and over in my conversations with devout Christians, including several priests.  Over my lifetime, several priests have admitted to me that they are agnostics.  Yet when the lights come on and the curtain goes up, they hit that pulpit without a doubt in the world.

So, how do you get people to recognize what they are in a group trance?  How do you get them to relax about the need to bond and to start following the evidence where it leads?  I haven’t the faintest idea.

If you’ve got any ideas, speak up now, so we won’t have to wait until 2008 . . .

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Category: Communication, Evolution, Friendships/relationships, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (48)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Speaking of global warming…I don't have a link to support this, but I read it in a local newspaper earlier this week. Apparently, America's fleet of weather satellites is aging and needs replacement, so the Bush Administration has approved funding to replace some of them. Here's the kicker: the Administration has only approved funding for the subset of satellites that help to forecast the weather; the remaining subset of satellites, which help to measure the effects of global warming (e.g., polar ice shrinking, increased desertification, etc.), will *not* be replaced. That way, when people protest about global warming, the Bushites can claim that there is no data to support the protesters' claims. No satellites, no data.

    It truly is amazing to see how far the Bush Administration will go to undermine any science that they find inconvenient. One minute they ignore scientific data that abstinence-only sex education is ineffective, the next they fabricate data that Saddam has WMDs, the next they suggest that creationism should get equal time in public school science classes, and now they actively subvert the goals of climatologists — all because they don't want scientific facts to get in the way of their radical, misguided religious agenda. I cannot help but think that if the Bible had said the sky was chartreuse, Bushite drones would be burning any textbook that said it was blue.

  2. Global warming or not, I would still not start putting scientists on a pedestal. After all they are human beings and even if Erich claims they are less prone to herd mentality it still does not mean they are these superindependent thinkers who do not care what their colleagues might think. Better safe than sorry and if George Bush is against it, it must be good, but nothing can convince me that when it comes to such a complex issue as climate that the scientists have found the absolute truth and the final answers.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    projektleiterin writes: "…nothing can convince me that when it comes to such a complex issue as climate that the scientists have found the absolute truth and the final answers."

    Perhaps not, but at least the scientists are *looking* for the absolute true and the final answers. The Bushites couldn't care less about the truth.

  4. Ben says:

    "The significant increase in average global temperatures over the past half-century can be attributed to human activities with a certainty of more than 90 percent."

    http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=12457&tid=282

    And for 26 myths of climate change

    http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth

    "Climate myths: Chaotic systems are not predictable"

  5. "Perhaps not, but at least the scientists are *looking* for the absolute true and the final answers. The Bushites couldn’t care less about the truth."

    Yes, I know, grumpy. I would only like to remind people not to act as if they had, which is not the same as ignoring the current results. I also prefer to err on the safe side and in general it's also a good idea to make people more environment conscious.

  6. "'Climate myths: Chaotic systems are not predictable'"

    Nothing is predictable, but you can make a good guess with statistics.

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    Chaotic systems have predictive loci called "strange attractors." You cannot tell very far ahead what an exact value will be, but you know what ballpark it will be in to a known plus-or-minus value.

    Fractals, the math we have for dealing with chaotic systems, were developed by studying weather in the first place.

    But this is a few years of math study ahead of that which the current administration seems to be cognizant.

  8. Brian says:

    To me it's simple. Many Republicans associate the Global Warming "movement" with a singular face. Al Gore. To them this nothing more than a political issue with a democrat figure-head. The environmental aspect is merely incidental in their eyes.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    Brian writes: "Many Republicans associate the Global Warming 'movement' with a singular face. Al Gore."

    Brian might be right, but Republicans have been denying the existence of global warming since LOOONG before Al Gore picked up the issue. Accordingly, I think Brian's comment is not entirely valid. Yes, it is a political issue for Republicans, but I think it has a whole lot more to do with their traditional vested interests (e.g., the oil lobby, the car lobby and other big dirty businesses) than with Al Gore.

    What makes no sense to me is the Republican argument that reducing pollution will reduce growth and kill the American economy. History has demonstrated over and over again that investment in growth technologies is THE best way to spur economic growth. Can there be any doubt that economically-viable technologies for reducing pollution and saving our own species (along with many others) will be a growth technology? America would be a whole lot smarter to be the world's innovator in this field, and profitably selling the results around the world.

    • Tony Coyle says:

      Ah! But there you get to the crux of the matter. Many republicans are happy in their land of superiority and status quo. Investing in new technology is challenging, it means changing behavior, it means that what I know is no longer useful or worthwhile.

      My wife and I are continually trying to interest neighbors (mostly republican) to invest in a number of neighborhood-scale projects:
      an energy farm (pilot would be to build a roof of solar panels over the parking lot at our clubhouse/pool – the cost would be repaid in less than ten years, and the pool would be able to be open for at least two more months every year.)
      Water recycling (we have a lot of runoff that just hits the drains — why not use the existing catch basins and sequester some of that water for our own, later use for watering lawns and so on.)
      car pools: most people have golf carts. we suggested investing in some pool cars so that people could use them for all the very short trips people make (to the grocery store, etc). The clubhouse would be an obvious depot (it’s accessible and close to the streets). We also suggested pooling for school runs (lots of people refuse to put their kids on the school bus!)

      Most of what we see is simply selfishness. When you speak to folks individually, they respond “That’s a great idea”. When you look for support, they don’t want to know. It’s fine for other people, but we can’t possibly!

      Some people have invested in technologies for themselves(!) but that only works for some things (limited water capture, for instance), and loses any scale benefits.

    • Tony Coyle says:

      note to self: LIST tags do not work!

  10. therese says:

    I saw "Camp Jesus" last night. A documentary that touched on conservatism and global warming and I could not understand why the staunch Replubican anti-global warming stance. Now I get it. The "club" mentality (how pathetic) to eschew anything democratic suits their need to "conserve" their ill-founded "beliefs", while this "W" administration suppresses evidence (there's a shocker) and panders to big, dirty business. If only they could get away with investing in growth technology (oh no, that would be "girlish" flip-flopping) they might be in favor of it. But they must "conserve" their beliefs and will continue to do so until the world boils over.

  11. ed west says:

    This is a beauty! Now I can sleep. It doesn't make it any better, but at least there is a reason for their denial, I guess.

  12. It's a wedge issue. It's as simple as that. Many republican politicians are actually relatively smart people that believe whole-heartedly in the reality of global warming. But admitting such truths would be blasphemous to their base and would jeopardize their reelection. That's US politics for you — reelection always takes precedence over the common good.

  13. Renate Bob says:

    There is more to it than psychology.

    Big Oil and car manufacturers and other business concerns have spent millions on spreading the propaganda and then saying that Global Warming is propaganda. It may hurt their bottom line.

    Right -wing radio has also done its thing. You can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time, especially since the science knowledge in this country is abysmal.

    There are many other examples: people don't "believe in" evolution, people believe in ghosts, the Rapture, etc.etc.

    The US is not exactly the most intellectual country in the world.

  14. Steven Davis says:

    I am an independent, but pretty much a democrat, just not officially. I totally believe in global warming and am doing all I can to open peoples' eyes to the dangers the world is facing very soon. However, I stopped reading your article once you made that Virgin Mary comment. I am also a Christian and you really don't need to bring that kinda comment into this argument. To me, as a believer, God can make anything happen, so a virgin having a baby is totally plausible and makes easy sense. Anyways, your insulting comments just kinda ruined it for me. I'm sure you have some good arguments about global warming, but I'll look elsewhere for explanations on why the GOP are a bunch of morons next time.

  15. MikeFitz17 says:

    Erich: This is an excellent post. It really explains a lot about how the Republican Party allowed itself to become hijacked by kooks, cranks and opportunists like Palin, Bachmann, Limbaugh and Beck.

    As much as I despised Ronald Reagan during his days as president, both he and the party he led at least had a tenuous grasp on reality. Today's GOP, however, revels in its ignorance and rejection of education, science, decency and reality. In choosing between what's best for the nation or how best to prove party loyalty, Republican leaders are consistently choosing the latter — much to everyone's detriment.

    With bigots to woo and books to sell, Republicans like Mike Huckabee have shown there is no limit to how low they will stoop. As we approach the 2012 election, it's going to be a mad dash to the bottom for the GOP.

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Kate Sheppard asks, “Why do white guys think climate change is a bunch of baloney?” http://motherjones.com/blue-marble/2011/08/why-are-white-guys-climate-skeptics The group she actually focuses on are older white guys.

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