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Look at the polls: Twice as many Democrats as Republicans say that most scientists agree that climate change is occurring. But why don't conservatives believe in climate change? For some progressives, the answer is easy: Republicans are dumb or backwards or fooling themselves. They may feel the same about me, since I don’t think it ever makes sense to write off a hundred million of your fellow Americans as fools for disagreeing with you.
It is certainly true that partisanship drives a lot of the opposition. President Obama is for it, so they are against it. Al Gore is the face of climate change, so it must be wrong. That’s an irrational approach to any issue, but it is something we all do. Democrats should try this thought experiment: If Dick Cheney were promoting an issue, calling on Americans to make it a national priority and touring the country with a fact-filled slide show, would you be willing to agree with him?
You might say it would depend on the facts he was presenting, but if I honestly ask myself the question, I know it would be very hard for me to stand on his side.
Or look at the issue of missile defense. There may be plenty of reasons to be skeptical of missile defense, but for most progressives who don’t follow the issue closely (like me), I think our opposition is rooted in the fact that President Reagan first promoted it.
Progressive are no more interested in having their cities bombed than Republicans are in having them flooded, and very few non-experts on either side really understand the complex science of either issue. But we have taken our cues from the leaders we trust, and instinctively oppose those with whom we generally disagree. (Just to be clear, I’m not arguing the relative merits of missile defense and climate action. My point is simply that tribalism and partisanship tends to color our judgment.)
So it makes sense that conservatives would start out as skeptical toward climate change. But once every major scientific organization has concluded the science is right, shouldn't they get past that? After all, the consensus view of climate science has been endorsed by the august and stodgy National Academy of Sciences, which President George W. Bush called the “gold standard” of scientific inquiry.
It may be that a more important reason many conservatives are reluctant to accept the science of global warming is that the solutions worry them. Addressing the problem will require national policies (and international cooperation) that shift our economy towards clean energy, and the GOP generally wants less, not more, government. So conservatives are going to demand very strong evidence that the problem is real and dangerous.
Still, I believe that for most conservatives, the bar of proof is not set infinitely high. When they see a real, dangerous threat, they get behind government action. For example, Republicans support the Centers for Disease Control’s work to fight epidemic diseases and FBI efforts against organized crime. Similarly, once conservatives are convinced that climate change threatens our way of life, they will support policies to address the problem. Their solutions may be different from EDF’s, but that’s a debate the nation would benefit from having.
Next time: How to build a constructive conversation between progressives and conservatives on climate change.