Global Warming is a Litmus Test For US Republicans

by Raymond S. Bradley, director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  This article was first published in the UK Guardian.

Mitt Romney, arguably the leading Republican candidate for president of the United States in the 2012 election, recently significantly diminished his prospects for obtaining the support he needs from the right wing of his party. How did he do this? He simply declared that he believes the Earth is warming, and that human activities are responsible. To most scientists, such a statement would be considered fairly innocuous, and an accurate assessment of current understanding. But to a large fraction of the US Republican party, this is a completely unacceptable position – ranking alongside gay marriage, gun control and abortion rights. Anthropogenic climate change has become a litmus test for Republicans in the United States.

If you want to appeal to the hard core of the party – those whom you need in order to obtain the party’s nomination – you simply can not acknowledge what almost every national science academy and scientific organization has accepted for many years. In fact, many other prominent Republicans, sensing the winds of retribution, have already back-tracked on whatever previous statements they might have made, if they contained even a whiff of climate reality. Given the importance of getting the United States on board to obtain a comprehensive international agreement on controlling greenhouse gases, this dismissal of scientific evidence about global warming is both sad and alarming.

Climate scientists on the front lines of this battle have suffered badly from the poisonous political atmosphere. Rightwing blogs and talk radio demagogues have promoted the idea that climate science is a worthless charade, where data are simply manipulated to obtain a politically motivated result. Scientists have been abused on blogs and via emails and some have even been physically threatened. Government officials have misused their positions to intimidate and harass prominent scientists, following a strategy of attacking the messenger when they don’t like hearing the message. A leading Republican senator asked the Justice Department to investigate 17 climate scientists (myself included) for committing fraud and other crimes. How have we arrived at this sorry state?

In order to understand the current state of play, one has to recognize that the issue of global warming is being completely manipulated by a group of individuals, businesses and organizations that have entrenched financial interests in making sure that the United States does not enact any legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions. At the extreme, these groups believe in complete market fundamentalism – that free markets, stripped of all constraints, will take care of any and all problems that we may face. To bolster this fundamentalist strategy, they provide major financial support to organizations that promote nonsensical ideas, such as global warming is a hoax and the IPCC reports are full of errors.

They also flood the electoral system with money, to ensure that like-minded right-wing politicians are elected to Congress. These politicians then dutifully hold hearings, inviting hand-picked scientists (often with minimal qualifications in climate science) to provide testimony which sows the seeds of doubt about the reality of global warming. The political objectives of these hearings are rarely discussed by the media. The general public just hears that more scientists disagree about an issue they find hard to deal with (which it is) and so they conclude that if scientists can’t agree, why should they support legislation to control emissions? In this way, the cynical but very effective strategy of the rightwing runs its course, and the US sits on its hands while atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations approach levels not seen on Earth for more than 2.5 million years.

If climate scientists were indeed all working together to manipulate data and create a fictitious scenario of the future, that would require a truly remarkable feat of coordination, and a sense of common purpose. What could the motivation of this cohort be? The answer was given to me by Congressman James Sensenbrenner (remarkably, now vice-chairman of the US House committee on science, space and technology). This high-ranking Republican carefully explained that the Kyoto protocol was a conspiracy by developing nations to cripple the US economy. Since these developing countries (apparently) could not compete on a level playing field with the US, they had devised the Kyoto treaty to tilt things in their direction, and climate scientists were complicit in this strategy. To those who subscribe to Sensenbrenner’s bizarre idea, it is only a small step further to frame the argument in patriotic terms. If you support Kyoto (or its goals) you must be anti-American, or at the very least a socialist. Which brings me back to Mitt Romney.

The Republican party in the United States is now in thrall to the extreme right wing, which is in turn financed and coached by those with the financial muscle to promote their narrow ideological agendas. To obtain the backing of these groups, you have to toe the line, and speak the words their dogma requires: global warming is not happening, perhaps even a hoax; whatever warming has occurred is just a natural oscillation; even if humans had something to do with it, it’s not a big deal and we can adapt to it. And besides, we can’t afford to control greenhouse gases, as such action will result in massive job losses. For a politician seeking the party’s nomination for president, it is a dangerous strategy to cross the line on this topic.

To the ideologues who have invested millions to support their political factotums in the US Congress, their money has been well spent, as meaningful legislation to control greenhouse gases has virtually disappeared from the congressional agenda. But not content with that success, they have now drawn a line in the sand for those seeking political office; global warming is off limits entirely. It is not something they want to be discussed at all.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has recognized the reality of global warming and acknowledged the real dangers that it poses for the future. Although taking steps to address the matter is difficult, many countries have embraced the opportunity to reduce energy consumption, implement conservation strategies and promote new technologies that involve energy production from non-carbon based fuels. Politicians who embrace these strategies represent the future. Those who don’t will simply become footnotes in history. Romney made the right decision – on this topic, at least.

Raymond S. Bradley is author of Global Warming and Political Intimidation, and director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst


Below are old comments from the earlier Facebook commenting system:

Conservatives in this country, in general, think backwards. They begin with ideological commitment, and then set out to wrestle reality into conformity. The argument against anthropogenic climate change in essence is that it conflicts with free market fundamentalism. Therefore it cannot be true. Similarly with evolution. It conflicts with the doctrine of original sin and redemption through the sacrifice of Christ, therefore it cannot be true. Mike Huckabee has been explicit about this. Liberals engage in what he calls “horizontal thinking” — reasoning from evidence to conclusions. Real Americans engage in “vertical thinking” — reasoning from received conclusions to the evidence they will incorporate into their picture of the world.

Put another way, they want to reverse the Enlightenment. The conservative golden age is not the 19th Century, as some seem to think, but the 12th.

6 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 19 at 9:53am

Peter S. Mizla · Top Commenter · Vernon, Connecticut

Republicans as you have described them is a bulls eye. Anything that does not conform to their rigid authoritarianism, is rejected.

It remains to be seen how they react as climate change becomes the nightmare of their reality.

1 · Like · Reply · August 19 at 3:52pm

John McCormick · Top Commenter

The wealthy Rethuglicans will escape with their billions and leave their hapless dupe scrambling for survival. This is a part of human nature.

Like · Reply · August 19 at 4:07pm

Lee J Rickard · Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mostly agree but… What have you got against the 12th century? You don’t want to pick a fight with Charles Homer Haskins do you?

Like · Reply · August 19 at 7:44pm

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Tim Bastable · Peoples college nottingham

Surely part of the problems with “market fundamentalists” is they don’t operate in a fair market. They privatise the gains of hydrocarbons but socialise the costs. A market where the environmental, health and social costs of carbon pollution were aggregated into the price of the product would probably make it the least competitive market option – they aren’t really “market fundamentalists” at all – just ruthless privileged businessmen who will stop at nothing to protect power and privilage.

3 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 20 at 3:42am

sasparillafizz (signed in using Yahoo)

The big question is how do you reverse this change in the GOP (until that is done, action in the US would seem to be a mirage never to be attained, as the Dems aren’t strong enough to do it themselves even when they have the majorities as we saw in 2009 and 2010).

At this point I don’t see how this situation can be changed – i.e. the denier interests have won, probably till its too late. Any Republican politician that doesn’t toe the line (and not just on climate change) is informed by one of the many Koch funded libertarian organizations (like the Heritage Foundation) that they will be targeted by a well funded opponent in the primary in the next election cycle where sitting members don’t normally have opponents (whether House members or Senate members) – and the Heritage and other organizations follow through on this and keep picking off the moderates.

It would seem that on this issue, climate change, things will have to get so bad and painful for the general population that Republican primary voters demand action (presumably because of economic devastation irrefutably, to Republicans, due to climate change) on it before the foundation of this situation can be changed – and that would seem many, many years from now.

2 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 19 at 11:19am

Thomas Jamison · Top Commenter

The drought in Texas and Oklahoma will continue. Although this was predicted as a consequence of climate change 30 years ago, you would never know that from most of the mainstream media.

The denier meme is that this is just another drought like the one in the 50’s but so far it has been been much more severe. As it continues, it is important to keep hammering the idea that this drought is being made more severe by climate change and that climate scientists predicted it and that these sort of droughts and heat waves will become more and more common over the next few decades.

Over time, most of the people in those areas will realize that they have been lied to, that the climate scientists were right, and they will change their minds about it being a hoax or a scam.

People will accept some amount of inconvenience to the economic interests in their pursuit of ideology, but when they are faced with complete economic devastation they will quickly abandon that ideology.

2 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 19 at 2:45pm

Rakesh Malik · Top Commenter · Photographer/Owner at White Crane Photography

“Over time, most of the people in those areas will realize that they have been lied to, that the climate scientists were right, and they will change their minds about it being a hoax or a scam.”

The catch is that we don’t have that much time before we cross the point of no return.

1 · Like · Reply · August 19 at 3:58pm

Peter S. Mizla · Top Commenter · Vernon, Connecticut

Sadly – you are right.

Like · Reply · August 19 at 4:07pm

Bill Runyan · Rhodes College

We can still mitigate it a little. A little is better then nothing.

Like · Reply · August 19 at 10:49pm

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Mike Roddy · Top Commenter · Yucca Valley, California

The oil and coal companies in charge of the Republican Party don’t care about what the.
people think at all, including moderates in their own party. They are convinced that they can accomplish anything with bribery, media manipulation, and brute force. Guess what: so far they have been right.

2 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 19 at 12:17pm

Peter S. Mizla · Top Commenter · Vernon, Connecticut

Mike- you are right about the success of the republicans accomplishing what they want- thus far. But in time no, climatic events at this point are beginning to slide into an abyss.

An era ends with its basic illusions are exhausted- so will this one.

2 · Like · Reply · August 19 at 4:11pm

Anthony William O’brien · Perth, Western Australia

Clearly the conservatives denial of global warming is genuine belief in most cases. If you look at the projections then Oregon should be the most valuable real estate in the United States and canal homes the least valuable. Absolute waterfront would not be a selling point.

I do know that the sea won’t get that high, but when I look at real estate even the stuff at three hundred feet feels too low.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 19 at 5:59pm

Joan Savage · Top Commenter · SUNY-ESF

Is it too much to dream of an organizational split between moderate GOP and the Conservatives that embraced the Tea Party? If GOP like Huntsman and Romney can disentangle themselves from the Conservatives and still run against Dems, the centrist positions could become more nuanced and lead to functional legislation. I’m not so sure that the base of the GOP are deniers, as there could be a bully-money minority that intimidates the rest. Just wondering.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 19 at 10:06am

Bart Laws · Top Commenter · Assistant Professor at Brown University

Rush Limbaugh and the other opinion leaders of the Republican party — including Fox News institutionally — are all in with denial. In fact Limbaugh can defensibly claim to be the father of the denialist movement. The Republican base believes what those people tell them.

3 · Like · Reply · August 19 at 10:09am

Joan Savage · Top Commenter · SUNY-ESF

@Bart Laws,
The Limbaugh-Fox News voice is loud, yet a 2010 Pew study showed a split in views within the enrolled GOP.

1 · Like · Reply · August 19 at 10:28am

Bart Laws · Top Commenter · Assistant Professor at Brown University

Gallup poll:

December 2010 Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God’s Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form) — by Party

52% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years. 36% say God guided the process of evolution. I can’t immediately lay my hands on comparable info about AGW, but I’ll bet it’s even worse.

1 · Like · Reply · August 19 at 1:32pm

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Bart Ginsburg · Fresno, California

the problem that I run into is that most of the conservatives that I talk to simply spew the sound bites and talking points that they have heard on fox news or rush limbaugh instead of doing any scientific research of their own. For the most part they have very little understanding of how climate works, how melting polar ice can effect rainfall or changes in ocean currents etc.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 19 at 2:33pm

Rod Elder

You know I have often found the same thing to be true of Liberals. Strange, huh?

Like · Reply · August 19 at 3:08pm

Bart Ginsburg · Fresno, California

not strange, just par for the course.

Like · Reply · August 19 at 5:43pm

Sandra Voyles Rogger

yes we do Bart. I did very well in high school on this subject. I just don’t believe it. its the sun doing this cause its doing it to mars too. & they are worried mercury cannot stand it. its not necessarily man made, is the point. algore made money off it & so are the clintons…

Like · Reply · August 19 at 5:49pm

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Robert Fanney · Top Commenter · Flagler College

Republicans, increasingly the party of big oil and no future. Not just for Republicans, but for everyone.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 19 at 4:15pm

Paul Magnus · Top Commenter

A very sad situation. Very sad times…

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 19 at 1:46pm

Bill Goedecke

I don’t think the author fully appreciates how this country was founded. As we know, when Columbus came to the Bahamas, Hispaniola and other such places the immediate impulse was to find gold and to subject and enslave the current inhabitants. The development of the New World, and, with it, the full development of market economics, came about with the availability of the resources of the New World and other colonial territories. This was also paired with the growing availability of energy rich carbon fuels such as coal and then oil. If economic theory fully gave weight to labor (as the Marxist theory does) then the efficiency of labor given the availability of energy rich fuels would be quantified. In my view the position of the Republican politicians reflects some of the core beliefs that have driven the development of the country since its founding. This includes the religious aspect dating back to Calvin. This development has always meant the eventual depletion of resources and provided a justification for it. The dialectic of capitalism does not allow for limitation arising from biological limits as it developed out of the expansion of European civilization during the colonial period.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 20 at 11:53am

Bart Ginsburg · Fresno, California

to Sandra..yes the sun cycles effect global warming and so does the human generated loss of the Ozone and industrial clouds of pollution and elements placed in the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning. to Rod…we can pick out individuals to whine about all day but until WE personally Do something to help then WE too are to blame as much as Gore or BP. and the biggest culprit behind global warming is denial of its existence.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 20 at 12:21pm

Charlie Schaffer · Healdsburg, California

When the Republicans stop being anti-science and anti-conservation and anti-future generations they might become fit for consideration in elections again.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 20 at 6:08pm

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