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Why the Paris agreement could be the beginning of the end for global warming denial

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) brought a real snowball onto the Senate floor to discusses climate change. (Video: C-SPAN)

After 195 countries agreed in Paris Dec. 12 to a sweeping agreement to try to bring global warming under control, there has been much analysis of what this means for the future of energy. But there are reasons to think that it also may have a surprising impact on the future of politics, even in the U.S. — namely, by taking away some of the motivations and dynamics that, for so long, have driven global warming skepticism, doubt and denial.

That may at first seem surprising — after all, even as negotiators drove toward an agreement in Paris, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz was hosting a hearing in which he once again claimed that there hadn’t even been any “significant global warming” in the past 18 years (even as we’re witnessing what is by far the warmest year on record). And we can expect to hear more of the same throughout the campaign season (although climate change was curiously absent from the latest GOP presidential debate).

However, if you take a longer term perspective — and if you examine the history of politicized, public scientific debates — then you see that the world is littered with forms of scientific doubt and denial that eventually declined and dwindled away. There used to be huge skepticism that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were damaging the planet’s stratospheric ozone layer — or that smokestack and car emissions were causing acid rain. And we all know how much doubt there used to be about the health dangers of smoking.

Yet today, while some individuals may still harbor scientific doubt on those matters, there are no longer significant movements around them, and they are no longer substantially a focus of debate or public policy. The matters feel settled now. The same, someday, will likely happen with global warming — but the question is when, and what will trigger the shift?

Psychologists have conducted considerable, often fascinating research on what drives climate change doubt — and it’s these findings that explain why Paris could potentially help to end it. Not immediately, to be sure, and not alone. The outcome will also depend heavily on what happens domestically with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which will have at least as much of an impact on thinking and the tenor of debate in this country.

But the key point is that the Clean Power Plan and Paris agreement are both solutions. As such, they move people from a world of fighting over the science in order to determine whether action is justified, to a world of taking action and consulting the science. The dynamic is fundamentally different.

Thus it’s over the long term, as the reality sinks in that the entire world has now moved to address the climate problem, that there are indeed reasons to think that doubt will slowly decline.

Shifting the status quo. One key idea that suggests this conclusion is the notion that climate change denial is, in part, a manifestation of what is called “status quo” bias — implicit and default justifications of the current, industrial system for getting energy. This system not only benefits many people, but is also simply what we are more familiar with. And there is mountainous evidence suggesting that we tend to be biased toward the familiar and the well-established.

Status quo biases make political and social systems very hard to change — but at the same time, once they actually do change, the same biases then work to enforce the new status quo.

“Historically speaking, many people once opposed child labor laws, voting rights for women, fluoridation of drinking water, admissions of minority students into universities, and so on,” says  John Jost, a social psychologist at New York University who has written widely on what he calls this “system justification” tendency. “Once these initiatives became established policies, the opposition slowly dissipated. For better and for worse, the status quo exerts a kind of motivational force on our thinking.”

In the context of this idea, what’s striking about the Paris accord is that it establishes a new global status quo that is built around comprehensive, country-by-country action to address climate change. And over time, based on this theory, that could lessen the motivations behind denial.

“Climate change denialism has become completely marginalized now, because the world is moving on,” says Michael Mann, a climate researcher with Penn State University. Indeed, even prior to Paris, there were clear signs of public opinion shifts, in favor of more and more Americans accepting that global warming is happening (a majority position in the public at large).

Undercutting “solution aversion.” On top of this idea about shifting status quos, there is also the key insight that the denial of science on climate change isn’t really motivated by science at all — even though it comes adorned with scientific claims, such as Ted Cruz’s assertion that satellite data don’t support the idea that it has been warming lately.

Rather, climate change doubt or denial appears to actually be a way of rationalizing a deep rejection of the perceived solution to climate change. On the political right, this is believed to be a command and control intervention in the economy (read: the Clean Power Plan) so as to favor some types of energy over others, and thus deeply inimical to libertarian or free market values.

Duke University researchers Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay published a paper late last year suggesting that “Republicans’ increased skepticism toward environmental sciences may be partly attributable to a conflict between specific ideological values and the most popularly discussed environmental solutions.” They called this “solution aversion.”

The Paris agreement presents just such a solution — so they are likely to oppose it strongly. The Clean Power Plan is even more ideologically offensive because of the way it uses government regulation to change the energy system.

However, once these solutions take hold, and people see that the world won’t end because of them and that there won’t be economic calamity, then the whole affair will simply be a lot less worth fighting over. Solution aversion could lose its force as the solution works, and as the status quo shifts.

But there’s a key catch here, explains Troy Campbell, lead author of the “solution aversion” paper and now a professor at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.

“We know from past work that often, once something becomes the status quo, we stop fighting it as much as we did, and we will stop fighting things the more we see they are solidified and unchangeable,” says Anderson. But he cautions, “People can persist, and if people are surrounded by other people who disagree with [the Paris agreement], they can [persevere] in that disagreement, and it will be especially true if people believe they can overthrow these things, or they can resist this.”

The fight isn’t over — yet. Campbell points to Obamacare, where the changed status quo hasn’t stopped congressional Republicans from voting repeatedly to repeal the now implemented law. They clearly feel that the battle isn’t totally lost, that the status quo hasn’t really changed. (On the other hand, if they fail in these battles, their children will grow up with that new status quo and likely be far less motivated to question it).

On the climate deal, Campbell notes that for now, despite the fact that they can’t do anything about the actions of 194 separate countries in joining the agreement, opponents still clearly feel empowered to resist it at home. Here, the fight will be principally over the Clean Power Plan, which is centrally tied to the Paris agreement because it is the number one piece of evidence showing the world that the U.S. is really serious about cutting emissions.

Campbell  cites, in particular, a recent statement by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell: “Before [Obama’s] international partners pop the champagne, they should remember that this is an unattainable deal based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, and that Congress has already voted to reject.”

This is also a key reminder that while Republican presidential candidates really haven’t attacked the Paris deal much yet, the GOP and allies in industry have been systematically fighting the Clean Power Plan, both legally and rhetorically. But here too, notes Greg Sargent, there are hints of more compliance by state-level Republican elected officials, who might realize over time that hey, this policy isn’t actually so bad, or so hard to live with.

There is, in other words, another potential status quo shift here in the form of this policy. Moreover, the growth of the clean energy industry, which is already happening but will be further driven by the Clean Power Plan, will also create a new status quo and a new energy establishment that will become entrenched around acceptance of climate change, not its rejection.

Granted, all of this is theoretical and could be derailed by future events — like legal attacks on the Clean Power Plan, or a future Republican president who vows to halt the Clean Power Plan or withdraw from the Paris accord.

Moreover, not everyone is convinced these sorts of dynamics are yet in play. One skeptic that Paris will kill climate denial is Princeton climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer, who recalls the science denial that emerged around threats of ozone depletion and acid rain. He pointedly observes that one major round of skepticism about the role of ozone-depleting chemicals actually came shortly after the adoption of the Montreal Protocol, the global treaty that, today, is widely viewed as having addressed the problem.

“Denialism draws its oxygen from larger political agendas and Paris won’t put an end to those,” says Oppenheimer. “There will still be plenty of opposition to regulating greenhouse gas emissions, to regulation in general, and to any sort of international cooperation.”

One thing seems clear — with campaign season in full force, and President Obama’s moves around climate change hotly opposed on the political right, the climate issue will not die down immediately. When it comes to attacking climate science, Paris may give added oxygen, for a time.

But around 2020, as temperatures continue rising and as the world begins the first round of assessing how effective the Paris climate accord has been — well, matters then may feel very different indeed.

More at Energy & Environment:

The world just adopted a tough new climate goal. Here’s how hard it will be to meet

Holding warming under two degrees Celsius is the goal. But is it really attainable?

Yet another way that humans are wrecking tropical forests — and making global warming worse

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