Last year, government scientists tell us, was the hottest year on record.
This news is terribly — what’s the word? — inconvenient.
No, not for polar bears or drought victims or coastal dwellers. It’s inconvenient for politicians across the country who, despite whatever data or overwhelming scientific consensus might be proffered, insist on denying global warming.
In recent weeks, West Virginia has snatched national headlines for its attempts to doctor school science standards to discredit climate change. The sixth-grade science curriculum, for example, was amended so that, rather than having students “clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century,” they would examine causes behind the rise “and fall” in global temperatures.
After a national outcry from educators, West Virginia backed down. But the science curriculum standards — which come from recommendations developed and adopted by a partnership of states — have already been rejected by Wyoming. South Carolina blocked the standards before they were even finalized, and other states are gearing up for similar battles. Climate change has slipped into the same contentious curricular role that evolution once occupied, and some sort of Scopes penguin trial or a debate over “intelligent warming” seems inevitable.
The question is why. Passionate anti-evolution skepticism was clearly borne of biblical teaching. But the motivations behind climate denialism — which, to my knowledge, remains unaddressed in Genesis — are a bit blurrier.
To some extent, of course, economic self-interest discourages a belief in man-made climate change, particularly if you’re from a state heavily dependent on fossil fuel production. West Virginia happens to be one such state, and a school board member there who backed the curricular changes even publicly alluded to the coal industry’s stake in the matter. Wyoming legislators’ thinking might be similarly influenced by their state’s status as both the nation’s top producer of coal — it is responsible for 39 percent of domestic production — and the top consumer of energy in per capita terms. In these states, man-made global warming is simply too economically inconvenient to be true.
But plenty of other states keep voting climate-change deniers into office even though doing so is against their interests. South Carolina is one obvious example, since its lucrative coastal tourism industry is vulnerable to rising seas. Florida and Texas are likely to be hit with more and increasingly devastating hurricanes, but both have elected federal lawmakers who are outspoken skeptics of human-caused climate change: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, all Republicans.
I mention these lawmakers in particular because they have the power to do a lot of damage on the science policy front, seeing as they, among other Republican climate “truthers,” all lead important committees or subcommittees that help set science policy. And in fact, it’s hard to talk about their party’s views of climate change without considering the broader context of its attitudes toward the entire scientific community.
The Republican War on Science has become a bit of a cliche, and GOP leaders have denied that they are indeed waging such a war. But who could blame them if they were? Survey data show that conservatives — who, back in 1974, were the political group that expressed the highest amount of trust in science — are now the most distrusting of the scientific community. Decades of anti-elite, anti-intellectual rhetoric, combined with the Internet’s uncanny ability to connect like-minded conspiracy theorists, have sowed a great distrust not only of climate change research specifically but of scientific researchers in general.
The ivory tower’s sole mission, in the minds of Republican leaders such as Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) and his constituents, is not to push the boundaries of human knowledge but rather to perpetuate a great liberal hoax upon the world while crippling businesses and hoovering up Americans’ hard-won tax dollars for dubious research projects. Thus Republicans’ near-obsessive condemnations not only of strategies to combat climate change but also of the Environmental Protection Agency and of the relatively small amounts of tax dollars delivered through peer-reviewed grants. (A good way to delegitimize the science community further, by the way, is to cut public funding so that research agendas are more often dictated by the whims of private donors and corporate sponsors.)
Conservative climate-change denialism is indeed dangerous, and not just because it threatens coral reefs and polar bears tomorrow. It’s also dangerous because it’s a symptom of a much greater anti-intellectual, anti-science epidemic, one that prioritizes populist punch lines over smart policy and threatens our ability to compete in the global economy today.
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