Buying the Shop: Tribal Loyalties Relegate Science to a Triviality in the Climate Change Debate

tribal loyalties and how they affect the climate change debate

When you step back, forget whatever grounding you may have in the subject and approach it anew, it seems somewhat remarkable that there’s any debate whatsoever regarding climate change. Surely, as a scientific matter, there can objectively only be one answer to the question of whether or not our actions are leading us toward environmental disaster.

Ok, so, obviously, that’s a huge hydra-faceted question with more than enough complexities to provoke several lifetimes worth of debate. But even then, you’d expect the nature of the debate to correspond to the nature of the problem – to be scientific.

It isn’t.

In my last opinion piece I went to some lengths to point out the irony that issues labelled as ‘green’ tend to perceived as being a niche interest when in fact they are, by their very nature, of the utmost relevance to everyone. Presently, I appear to be heading in a contrary direction; setting myself up to bemoan the fact that the debate surrounding said topic isn’t specialised enough. It’s not that I believe debate should be left to those with a PHD in a relevant field. Rather, my frustration is that in lieu of a specific interest in a green issue, it’s all too common for people to adopt a position based on their feelings about a completely separate subject.

Perhaps because of the tribally partisan nature of politics in two party democracies such as the UK and US, we are used to a mentality where you are always on one side of the fence or the other. You pick your side based on your certainties, and then hope your faction will also be right about the things you’re less sure of. Rather than pick and choose them, we package our opinions wholesale; we buy the entire shop.

So, if you consider yourself well versed in economics and thoroughly believe that a laissez affair approach to governance will make us all better off, you are, it would appear, more likely to be a climate sceptic, even if you’ve never looked into the subject. As Aaron M. McCright and Riley E. Dunlap point out in The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming:

Given the increasing alignment between ideological and partisan positions among American voters (Abramowitz and Saunders 2008), similar differential responses to environmental protection can be expected from Republicans and Democrats. Four decades of research on both elites and the public has yielded supportive results, as Democrats and especially liberals are consistently found to be more pro-environmental than their Republican and conservative counterparts (Dunlap et al. 2001).

This cuts both ways. For example, though reductive, following the same logic as the above example, if you’re campaigning for gay rights, you’re more likely to be supportive of environmental causes as, broadly speaking, it falls within the sphere of liberal concerns.

Whichever side of the climate debate a person joins, if their reasons for taking that position are informed by a separate, unrelated issue then it’s not really an environmental debate taking place. At best it’s about something else, at worst it’s about everything else. This makes agreement infinitely harder to reach.

Of course, it’s understandable that if somebody finds the idea of government interference in public life ideologically unpalatable, they’re unlikely to be enamoured of the green cause, which often calls for government interference to protect the environment. After all, nothing happens in a vacuum. But that doesn’t enter in the equation when it comes to actually figuring out how close we are to a state where the damage is irreversible.

Unfortunately, this clustering of beliefs means that the weight of other unconnected interests will always be sufficient to push science out of the picture. As you might expect, sometimes rationality and good taste get jettisoned along with it.

A great (as in awful) example of this came in the form of the notorious billboards put up by the right wing think tank, The Heartland Institute, which draws its funding from undisclosed sources. The ad featured a mug shot of the terrorist Ted Kaczynski, better know as the Unabomber, alongside the tagline “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” the implication being that if you respond in the affirmative, you’ve somehow advocated the actions of a killer.

Such a transparent rouse hardly needs to be dissected, but this retaliatory tweet from Kevin Borgia, the director of the Illinois Wind Energy Coalition, nicely sums it up:

#Heartland Institute believes in gravity. SO DID HITLER.

Ironically, this utterly unscientific refutation of climate change was supposedly intended to point out that the green movement itself was not scientific enough, with the institute releasing a statement saying: “The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”

But maybe the absence of science from such arguments is irrelevant anyway. There’s a strong case to suggest that, even when environmental debates do hinge on the empirical findings of scientists, we are still predisposed to shoehorn the evidence we’re given to fit the position we’ve already taken based on other factors.

In The Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus Dan Kahn, Donald Braman and Hank Jenkins-Smith claim that the way we go about digesting expert opinions on a subject means that they will have almost no chance of changing our minds:

Scientific consensus cannot be expected to counteract the polarizing effects of cultural cognition because apprehension of it will necessarily occur through the same psychological mechanisms that shape individuals’ perceptions of every manner of fact.

Essentially, we all hear what we want to hear and as a result “individuals of opposing outlooks arrive at radically different results when they conjure examples of ‘expert opinion’ on particular issues.” So, even if the scientific community agree, the public wont.

Given the huge, all-inclusive effort it will take to start implementing real solutions to climate change, it’s obvious that an overwhelming consensus on the necessity for action will be needed. If people’s views on this issue are inextricably tied to their views on everything else, such consensus will be impossible (and possibly even undesirable, given that the planet we’d be saving would be eerily free of disagreements).

As such, I’d argue that the perceived relationship between global warming and other issues which share no scientific connection is the single biggest barrier to tackling climate change – one more reason to work towards a less rigidly partisan society where an allegiance to logic comes first.

Will (2 Posts)

Will Kerr blogs about a range of environmental topics, with a special interest in the way the media reports on green issues. He graduated from the University of Warwick in 2010 with a first class degree in English Literature and Creative Writing.

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