The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP

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"The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP"

Turns out you can fool some of the people all of the time — if those people are conservatives.

I have previously argued “The deniers are winning, especially with the GOP,” which received more than 500 comments. Now Environment magazine has published an analysis that suggests the deniers are winning only with the GOP. This analysis should be especially alarming to scientists.

Figure 1

Is Global Warming Occurring? As Figure 1 shows, despite the steadily growing observational evidence that global warming has begun — indeed that it is occurring faster than expectedRepublicans have actually been less than oblivious. The global cooling lie has worked — with the GOP.

[All of the figures here come from Gallup polling over the past decade. Blue is dem, Red is GOP. Click to enlarge.]

That shouldn’t be too surprising, I guess, since the disinformation campaign aimed at blocking climate action comes primarily from the conservative movement itself: “A significant part of the U.S. conservative movement–made up of conservative foundations, think tanks, media, and public intellectuals–mobilized in the 1990s to challenge both climate science and climate policy.” For more on this, see Naomi Oreskes’ excellent lecture titled, “The American Denial of Global Warming.”

Needless to say, those denial sources have more credibility with conservatives, so it is only natural that so many Republicans have been duped. Indeed, some conservatives simply adopt the positions of conservative intellectuals without doing any thinking of their own (see “RNC Delegate Fredericks: “I am gonna go with Charles Krauthammer” on global warming“).

Figure 3Is There a Scientific Consensus? Figure 3 shows another remarkable partisan divide. “Republican spokespersons and conservative commentators continue to challenge the scientific consensus on global warming by highlighting the views of a modest number of skeptic or ‘contrarian’ scientists who question the IPCC’s conclusions. One result is that in their efforts to provide ‘balanced coverage, U.S. media have given disproportionate attention to these skeptics, creating the impression of less scientific consensus on global warming than exists within the mainstream scientific community.” [Note: I don't like the term "consensus," as I've written. I prefer "understanding."]

To see just how remarkable the Figure 3 data is, compare it to Figure 1. In 1997, some 52% of Dems said the effects of global warming have already begun and 52% said most scientists believe global warming is occurring. In 2008, now 76% say warming had begun and 75% say most scientists believe warming is occurring. Makes sense. Dems believe most scientists.

As for Republicans, in 1997 some 42% said warming had begun and 48% said most scientists believe warming is occurring — a modest 6 point differential. By 2008, the percentage of Republicans saying the effects of global warming have already begun had dropped to a mere 42% (an amazing stat in its own right given the painfully obvious evidence to the contrary). But the percentage saying most scientists believe global warming is occurring had risen to 54% — a stunning 12 point differential.

In short, a significant and growing number of Republicans — one in eight as of 2008 — simply don’t believe what they know most scientists believe. That is quite alarming news, given that it is inconceivable the nation will take the very strong action needed to avert catastrophe unless it comes to believe what most scientists believe, namely that we are in big, big trouble and can delay no further (see “Desperate times, desperate scientists“).

Note to scientists: In the last decade, you apparently have become less convincing to Republicans than the deniers have been. They apparently have gotten better at messaging while you have perhaps gotten worse. The time to deal with that failure to communicate is yesterday!

What about the partisan divide over whether humans are to blame for most of the warming that has occurred? These results may be the most depressing of all:

Figure 4Human-Caused or Natural Change? “In 2008, 58 percent of the surveyed population sees global warming as due more to human activities than natural causes, slightly lower than the 61 percent giving this response in 2001…. This near-stability in the overall population hides differing trends among Republicans and Democrats, as shown in Figure 4.”

A large majority of Democrats have understood for a decade that humans are the dominant cause of global warming. Only 2 in 5 Republicans now believe this, even though it is a central conclusion of the recent, definitive IPCC report.

This is really the core scientific and political issue: If you believe the sharp increases in human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases over the past century are not the primary cause of global warming then it would seem obvious you will believe that sharp decreases in human-caused emissions humans are not the solution. And this is a core reason why Congressional Republicans seem increasingly unwilling to back serious climate action (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“). Unless these numbers change substantially, climate action will remain a very polarized issue politically.

Figure 2

Is Media Coverage Exaggerated? The main sources of denial come from conservative sources outside of the traditional, mainstream media. So it is only natural that Republicans would be increasingly skeptical of the mainstream media (see Figure 2), whose coverage, though still quite lame, is at least somewhat driven by the rapidly growing quantity and quality of observational evidence along with the increasingly strong scientific understanding of climate science.

And so we have what can be described only as an increasingly grim political situation. A majority of Republicans don’t believe the effects of global warming are already here, and they don’t believe humans are the primary cause of temperature changes in the last century.

The two obvious sources of information that might change these dangerously mistaken views are the scientific community and the traditional news. But Republicans have become increasingly skeptical of both those sources over time.

That really leaves only one source of “information” that might change the views of Republicans and that is the leadership of the conservative movement itself — conservative politicians, conservative think tanks, conservative media, and conservative pundits. Until they not only reverse their position completely but also actively spread this reversed position to the faithful, this country will find it almost impossible to adopt the very strong government-led policies needed to avert humanity’s self-destruction.

Yet this Presidential campaign suggests the tiny portion of the conservative movement that actually seemed to understand global warming is now moving in the wrong direction (see “Turns out McCain doesn’t care about global warming, the greatest threat we face“).

I don’t have any easy answers to offer in this post. I do believe that if the conservative movement continues to strongly oppose serious climate action, then it will ultimately be destroyed by that self-destructive myopia. But that will be very small comfort to the billions and billions of people whose lives are ruined by catastrophic global warming in the coming decades and centuries.

I suppose the only answer remains vigilance. The cost of losing is simply too high.

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23 Responses to The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP

  1. Modesty says:

    I’m worried scientists and advocates alike will misunderstand your overall point.

    I’m worried they will renew their misguided efforts to reach out to Republicans and thereby make an even larger contribution to the disinformation machinery that is the Republican war on democracy, by lending credibility to deniers and delayers, greenwashing the worst of them until they shine like emeralds.

    While would-be leaders are busy playing missionaries, playing catch-up general science educators, playing catch-up critical thinking instructors, the choir, lacking a director, is silent, and there are thieves in the temple.

    In the real world, US energy policy IS partisan. The attempt to establish good energy policy by pretending it’s not a partisan issue has failed. The time has come to get the “right” people elected, rather than trying to cajole the wrong people into doing the right thing.

    If self-interest, health, or moral arguments had any force in a partisan environment, we would not be where we are. But we are.

    Mobilize the progressive base. Everything else is noise and procrastination.

  2. John Hollenberg says:

    Joe, one typo “you apparently have apparently”. Fascinating but frightening article.

  3. Dano says:

    Fascinating post, Joe. There is, of course, a need for denialism. I’m not sure why the party affiliation of Republican attracts this crowd, but unfortunately we need some of them to wake up to get political will.

    In the meantime, for some things pricing them through the roof will work, for example gasoline. When I go pick up our kindergartner from school, I can count ~3/4 of the fat parents waiting for their fat kids in their big vehicles with the engine running. For these people, gas is too cheap.

    Best,

    D

  4. Bob Wallace says:

    Does the graph illustrate a shift in the thinking of Republicans or the number of people who self-identify as Republicans?

    Seems that we’re hearing of people moving from Rep. to Independent ranks. Might the least denying also to be the most questioning of where the Republican Party has gone?

    Looking at data provide by the Pew Research Center we see that the number of voters identifying as Republican has dropped from around 33% to 27% during the last four years. That’s about a 20% drop.

    Perhaps we’re not seeing an attitude shift as much as a distillation as the more moderate people are being boiled off and leaving the Party.

    http://pewresearch.org/pubs/773/fewer-voters-identify-as-republicans

  5. Joe says:

    Yes, Bob — I definitely think a shift in party identification is a factor.

  6. Bob Wallace says:

    Not as many deniers as some of us fear?

    Might depend on how the question are asked. Take a look at these Gallup poll results from this year (2008).

    First question – deniers vs. accepters….

    “You may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been going up slowly over the past 100 years. What is your personal opinion on this? Do you think this has probably been happening, or do you think it probably has not been happening?”

    Has Been 80%
    Hasn’t Been 18%
    Unsure 2%


    Then…

    “Which of the following statements reflects your view of when the effects of global warming will begin to happen? They have already begun to happen. They will start happening within a few years. They will start happening within your lifetime. They will not happen within your lifetime, but they will affect future generations. OR, They will never happen.”

    Already Happening 61%
    Within a Few Years 4%
    Within Your Lifetime 10%
    Future Generations 13%
    Never 11%

    With the second question it appears that climate change deniers are about half as many as might be assumed from the first question. It suggests that about half of the deniers are soft in their beliefs.

    Perhaps it’s time to treat this group as an out of touch fringe and quit worrying about them. Point out to politicians that they might not be winning votes by appealing to 10% and alienating 90%.

    http://www.pollingreport.com/enviro.htm

  7. I have had this thought for quite some time, and these stats seem to bear it out.

    The Republican Party — including the current administration and John McCain — have made incredible efforts to reach out to evangelical Christians who have an innate distrust of science and scientists. After all, these godless scientists are the same people who are trying to convince them that Planet Earth is millions of years old, and that man descended from the apes. (As my late mother used to say… You might have descended from the monkeys, but I sure didn’t!)

    And that’s why, to truly sell the need for change, we need a charismatic religious leader to speak the truth loudly and often, or an emotional campaign that stresses that God wants us to be gentle caretakers for the planet.

    And that would seem to be a tall order.

  8. Andy Bauer says:

    I recently had the pleasure to host Dr. Gary Yohe (co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the IPCC) to speak at a local clean energy event. This one fact (of many) blew me away, and may I suggest it be used to put statements of IPCC ‘alarmism’ to rest:

    (excerpted from my letter to the editor of a local paper)

    …What people may not know is how extremely conservative the IPCC process is. When the findings are summarized, every country has members in on the discussion. In meetings that can last for days, every single sentence must be approved. Word by word. Unanimously. A cautious process to say the least.

    So when IPCC representatives (including those from major polluters like the US, Russia, China, India, etc.) reveal dire climate change predictions for the road ahead, we must acknowledge that the IPCC process forces them not to mention the worse case scenarios. Which is a sobering thought.

    Can we avoid the worst? Absolutely. Professor Yohe stated, “I’m an optimist”…

  9. Dano says:

    Bob Wallace wrote:

    Perhaps it’s time to treat this group as an out of touch fringe and quit worrying about them. Point out to politicians that they might not be winning votes by appealing to 10% and alienating 90%.

    Right. This has been my position for some time now (my term is denialist fringe). The denialist fringe is very busy writing letters to the Editor and comments, way out of proportion to their actual fraction of the population. I work with politicians at the local level, and most of them understand AGW is real and happening, and IME they still don’t know how to handle the few nutjobs they meet who say, in effect, GLOBUL WARMINS A SCAY-UM.

    At higher levels, IMHO pols are beholden to their benefactors and do nothing out of payback and in some measure because they cannot gauge the breadth or numbers of denialists. Which is why I thank you for your comment. Now we have an idea.

    Best,

    D

  10. Bob Wallace says:

    RE: Politicians wondering…

    Ask them how they deal with the “US out of the UN!”, “second shooter on the grassy knoll”, “secret codes on stop signs”, “aliens walk among us” folks.

    Same-same.

  11. Russ says:

    Ask them how they deal with the “US out of the UN!”, “second shooter on the grassy knoll”, “secret codes on stop signs”, “aliens walk among us” folks.

    Same-same.

    Bob, you’re of course right on the merits with this comparison.
    (Except for the stop signs! We all know about the codes!)

    But the difference is that unlike those other wingnuts, these wingnuts are point men for rich, powerful interests (indeed many of them aren’t nuts at all, but mercenaries).

    So for obvious reasons politicians hear something more than just idiocy when they hear that “global warming isn’t real”.

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    Are they “point men for rich, powerful interests”?

    Just asking, don’t really know one way or another.

    The ones who post on blogs such as this seem to be of limited intelligence. Just angry old geezers with a position and no facts to back up their statements.

    Outside of coal (and to a lesser extent oil) what corporate interests are served by denial? And if corporations were funding deniers wouldn’t you think that they would give them some talking points other than “Ain’t!!!” and hire people who aren’t as dumb as a stick?

  13. Russ says:

    Well, I wasn’t so much thinking about run-of-the-mill trolls, though sometimes I think some of them are trying to be “discovered”.

    I was thinking more about pseudo-scientists and polemicists (and the few real scientists) organized into things like the Heritage foundation, who have been funded by corporations, with ExxonMobil taking the lead, and right-wing think tanks and foundations. This has been a concerted campaign since the late 80s, really ever since climate change started to have a public profile. They consciously modelled it on Big Tobacco’s obscurantism and obstructionism. Mnay of their cadres became political appointees in the Bush admin.

    Besides fossil fuel extractors, others who have an interest in denial are auto manufacturers, utilities who don’t have much nuclear in their mix, anyone involved in deforestation (unless it’s for biofuels), and probably others I’m missing.

    Then all the little trolls follow this campaign’s lead.

    Greenpeace has a great website, ExxonSecrets which goes into meticulous detail tracing the whole outfit – all the key players, the money flows, etc.

  14. Steve Bloom says:

    See this topical post by a physicist (via Jennifer Ouellette). Be sure to follow the link to the interesting study results covered in the WaPo a few days ago.

    A couple of brief thoughts:

    For quite some time the Republicans have been in the business of assembling an unnatural majority. Loss of any significant segment of their base means they lose elections, so they are forced into least-common-denominator policies combined with exhortations to stay united. As Bob points out, though, it’s hard for them to avoid a certain amount of boiling off.

    Their position on climate disruption needs to be seen in the context of their longer history on environmental issues. I think many if not most Republicans would admit that environmental protection policies have been a good thing, but at the same time see no contradiction with delaying and weakening new ones. This template was pretty much fully-formed by the time climate disruption entered the policy arena.

    Bob, in a broad sense nearly all corporate interests are served by denial. They see climate disruption as one more externality that will cost smething and effect their long-term plans, would simply prefer to not deal with it, and consider delaying dealing with it for as long as possible to be an unalloyed good.

  15. Dano says:

    Bloom, this is why Mark Kleiman’s blog is samefacts.com. But an interesting read nonetheless. Lakoff tried to understand this phenomenon a few years ago with the ‘stern father’ metaphor, which I think gets at it too.

    Best,

    D

  16. Peter Foley says:

    Dance, all thus ‘fat’ people evolved to to eat skinny people during the long ice age winters. The Big Lie is refuted daily by actual temperature data available to any with the least amount of desire to research the true state of the global climate.

    The memes Steve posited show the bankrupt status of the current AGW clan in relation to contributing any usable ideas for use in improving the lives and the Earth’s net environmental state. Turning to a some anti-tech, low powered, and anti-wealth social structures with a puntitive taxes structured to prevent progress or personal freedom.

    Even if Joe Romm and the rest of the AGW conspracy wasn’t lying– I’d rather deal with a 6 degree temp change and 20 foot increase in sea levels then allow the imposition of a world-wide nanny state under the guise of environmental emergency dictatorship.

  17. Bob Wallace says:

    The unnatural (sometimes) majority goes mainly back to Nixon and his ‘southern strategy’ in which he brought working class white racists to the Republican party in order to increase votes. Then as racism became less useful the focus morphed to include feminists, gays, environmentalists, even intellectuals.

    (Interesting how Jews, once one of the groups most hated by the right, have become one of their most valued.)

    Got to say that the Repubs are in deep doo-doo with coming generations. It’s going to take some creative work to find new groups against whom to aim their bile.

    But corporations, sure some/many would like it if they didn’t have to adapt their business to respond to environmental concerns. But for the most part adapting won’t mean loosing lots of money.

    Since the playing field is leveled in that all similar businesses must adapt there will be no loss of competitive advantage and the incurred costs will be passed on to customers.

    Additionally many of the changes in ‘business as usual’ that are needed to protect the environment also happen to reduce energy needs/expenses. Another place where we seem to have gotten very lucky with petroleum prices skyrocketing at the same time as global temps reaching a critical point.

    Overall few businesses are in the position of watching their industry disappear as is coal. Coal stands to go the way of whale oil refiners and harness makers. It’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when”.

    Oil can certainly see decreasing supplies looming in the future. They know that for a long, long time they will probably be able to sell smaller amounts for higher prices into a smaller market of buyers who can’t find a workable alternative. (Thinking planes and ocean going freight in particular.)

    I just can’t see any industry other than coal having adequate need to hold off changes in how we power our lives. Like tobacco companies fighting anti-smoking attitudes, coal is fighting for its existence.

  18. Jim Eager says:

    Re Peter Foley: “Even if Joe Romm and the rest of the AGW conspracy wasn’t lying– I’d rather deal with a 6 degree temp change and 20 foot increase in sea levels then allow the imposition of a world-wide nanny state under the guise of environmental emergency dictatorship.”

    Thanks for clearly stating that for you it is not about science, or even physical reality, at all, but rather all about your own political ideology and paranoia.

  19. Joe says:

    Jim — I missed Peter’s ad hominem attack. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Peter — Congrats. You have been put on permanent moderation.

    BTW, a 6 degree temperature change and 20 foot increase in sea levels will necessitate a worldwide nanny state, that decides who lives where, rations water, food, and energy, etc. as I have argued at length.

  20. red says:

    “The two obvious sources of information that might change these dangerously mistaken views are the scientific community and the traditional news. But Republicans have become increasingly skeptical of both those sources over time.”

    The perception among a lot of Republicans is that the main stream news media is strongly biased against them, not especially in environment or energy topics, but across the board. One argument is that news professions attract people with “advocacy” tendencies, so the people who populate news organizations are by and large self-selected liberals. Conservatives tend to choose business, engineering, and similar careers because they are more concerned with earning a living than advocacy, and from their perspective creating businesses and products is the type of “good” they feel rather than fighting for a cause that might inspire a news person.

    Obviously this is a huge generalization, but it probably sums up a major part of the Republican distrust of the media. It would be interesting to see some kind of statistical study documenting the political leanings of news professionals like reporters in areas that have nothing to do with energy and climate. If we find a liberal bias there, the obvious solution to the problem that Joe presents (convincing Republicans to trust the media on climate issues) is to correct the bias. If we find no bias, the solution is to point this out to the Republicans.

    I suspect that there’s a similar source of Republican distrust in the science area. In particular, they may suspect that scientists that choose careers in environmental or Earth sciences most relevant to climate change tend to do so as advocates for the environment. Again, it would be interesting to analyze the general political leanings of the scientists to see if there is anything to it.

    “That really leaves only one source of “information” that might change the views of Republicans and that is the leadership of the conservative movement itself — conservative politicians, conservative think tanks, conservative media, and conservative pundits.”

    It will be almost impossible to convince conservative leaders, whose ideology features low taxes, small government, and business freedom to promote climate change steps that involve high taxes, big government, and business regulation, particularly if these steps hurt the U.S. economy while helping the economies of countries with opposing ideologies like China. I’ll take an excerpt from the RGGI post:

    “If you want a serious plan that respects climate science, that auctions allowances and uses the revenue from those auctions to help Americans transition to clean energy …”

    How do you expect to get a conservative leader to advocate not only a carbon trading system that is essentially a tax that will affect everyone, including the middle class, through higher energy costs, higher costs in any product that uses energy, hits to their retirement investments which are contain energy companies and energy-using companies, etc … but on top of that uses the tax revenue for more government programs???

    To have a fighting chance of convincing conservative leaders to go along with such a scheme, some sort of compromise is needed where the tax revenues are offset by lower taxes elsewhere, rather than using them for more government. Or … some other compromise that the conservatives like would be needed. Even that wouldn’t convince all of them, but it would probably get many interested. However, the compromise has to be reasonable, and can’t be torpedoed by the extremists from the left or the right … not easy.

    In the meantime, while the political climate debates go on, energy independence steps that happen to also be good for the climate are probably a much easier sell to conservatives. Many conservatives dislike OPEC, most dislike high gas prices, many are in states with lots of farms, and conservative ideology favors entrepreneurs like those that might help with PHEVs. Yes, there are the oil companies, but nevertheless the energy independence angle is probably the most productive one to push for now.

  21. Bob Wallace says:

    There are lots of ways to appeal to “conservatives”.

    For the security obsessed…

    Moving away from petroleum increases national security. Right now major oil producing companies can have undue influence over America because they can cut off our oil supplies.

    For the greedy…

    Moving away from petroleum and to an in-country energy source for transportation would stop the huge flow of American wealth to other countries. And it would be a lot less cheaper to fill your car with electricity.

    Using American made energy rather than imported oil would increase our tax base thus allowing a further decrease in personal taxes.

    For the small town, red state folks…

    Developing more renewable energy systems would mean hundreds of thousands of new good paying jobs for Americans. Many of those jobs would be located in the ‘heartland’ where good jobs are scarce. Lots of small middle-America towns would find new life.

    And those jobs on the wind farms and in the solar fields couldn’t be sent overseas.

    For the religious types…

    Reducing our use of fossil fuels would help us be better stewards as commanded in the Bible. For example…

    ” The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land. ” Lev. 25:23-24

    For the racists…

    Avoiding a 20 rise in the seas would mean a lot less immigration of people “not like us” from lands such as Bangladesh which would disappear under water.

    There are lots of ways to sell the message that we can and need to change our energy structure.

  22. Dano says:

    Timely post, Joe, as I got in my inbox this morning a note about a new paper in Science that looked at a small sample of folks to try and get at political affiliation.

    This paper appears to extend the work of one of the authors and the recent study that found lib’rulls and conservatarians process information differently (and I repeat again from above Lakoff’s hypothesis about stern father figures).

    Best,

    D

  23. shop says:

    That shouldn’t be too surprising, I guess, since the disinformation campaign aimed at blocking climate action comes primarily from the conservative movement itself: “A significant part of the U.S. conservative movement–made up of conservative foundations, think tanks, media, and public intellectuals–mobilized in the 1990s to challenge both climate science and climate policy.” For more on this, see Naomi Oreskes’ excellent lecture titled,