Climate science denial is one of the strongest anti-scientific currents running through today’s Republican Party. American conservatives, who tend to be most skeptical of the scientific consensus on greenhouse pollution, generally hold other politically relevant anti-science views, such as support for creationism and opposition to stem-cell research. As global warming touches all of our lives, people are having to reconcile the reality of a polluted world with their personal moral views.
Presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) is presenting his denial of climate science as rooted in his same faith that evolution is a hoax. Perry’s response to the greenhouse-powered drought in Texas has been to issue an official prayer for rain, while spurning man’s responsibility. On the campaign trail, he portrays the climate science as a “secular carbon cult” working against his infallible faith.
However, climate science denial has a very different provenance from other conservative anti-scientific attitudes. The facts of climate science challenge the business model of the fossil fuel industry, whereas the facts of evolution and the like challenge religious fundamentalism. The oil industry and evangelicals form two pillars of American conservatism (see the work of Allen Lichtman and Kevin Phillips), but their networks and influence are not the same. Climate denial has traditionally been spread not through conservative churches but through the secular, oil-funded media networks — the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh.
The arguments made against natural selection are rooted in a century-old cultural conflict over the origin of man. However, the main line of attack against climate science has been taken recently from the tobacco industry playbook, raising doubts about the science and convincing business leaders that the expense of pollution reduction would be ruinous. Climate denial draws from the false conflict between economy versus environment rather than the false dichotomy of science and religion. Evangelical teachings don’t exclude the conclusion that being wasteful of the planet’s resources could be harmful. The conservative evangelical community has been split over climate change, with old-line partisan evangelicals like James Dobson supporting the oil companies, and next-generation evangelical conservatives like Rick Warren joining the Catholic Church in recognizing that fossil pollution is an issue of Christian suffering.
However, we are now entering a new era in climate change. Global warming is no longer a future threat, but an existing reality. Storms are stronger, droughts are more dangerous, oceans have risen and glaciers receded. The change in the global climate has led to changes in the weather that everyone can detect in their daily lives, not just scientists making careful measurements. This is transforming an issue primarily of concern to elites — the coal and oil barons whose economic well-being is directly threatened by changes in our energy infrastructure — to one all Americans must grapple with on a personal level. They must each answer the basic question of whether humans have responsibility for damaging the climate, threatening all they hold dear.
Meanwhile, the conservative climate denial machine has ramped up its efforts to make global warming conspiracy theories a matter of conservative dogma, with endless stories about dastardly climate scientists working with George Soros, Barack Obama, the United Nations and other leftist bugbears to take away basic American freedoms.
The upshot is a rise in grassroots climate denial, conservative parents accusing ungodly teachers of pushing the ideological “theory” of climate change to their children. The National Center for Science Education, the long-time leader in the fight to protect classroom biology from evangelical fundamentalism, is getting increasing reports of global warming flareups. Tea Party Republicans at the local and state level — elected on an economic platform but dominated by religious conservatives — are integrating climate-denial propaganda into their religious worldview.
Perry, even more than his fellow oil-evangelical conservatives like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Sarah Palin, is openly willing to traffic in public repudiation of the scientific enterprise. As the ravages of climate change increase, there is likely to be a rising tide of grassroots American conservatives who will find comfort in his pseudoreligious denial of the harsh fact of a world diminished by pollution. Only time will tell whether those Christians who instead answer nature’s clarion call and fight climate pollution will win the battle for the soul of American conservatism.