Did Al Gore Retard Efforts to Confront Global Warming?

GG watched an enjoyable and energetic lecture by Dan Kahan (will post a link if it becomes publicly available).  His basic premise is that belief in certain things gets tangled up with a sense of identity (this was a point raised in a paper we discussed awhile ago). So, for instance, asking if man is descended from other animals yields results that very closely parallel religiousness. And if you have a separate measure of scientific understanding and plot the percent answering the question correctly versus that measure of scientific ability, you find a poor correlation.  If you separate the respondents into religious and non-religious groups, you see the fraction of religious groups rejecting scientific evolution increase as they are more scientifically competent.  So, he argues, this question is actually asking people to identify themselves, and those who identify as religious and who are scientifically literate are simply more agile at amplifying marginal arguments and rejecting other arguments to bolster their position.  He suggests that this has little to do with the understanding of evolution: when the question is rephrased to ask, what does the theory of evolution tell us, everybody tends to do better and tend to do better with increasing science literacy (the paper we discussed earlier simply uses level of education as a proxy for science ability but more or less found the same relationships).

So Kahan argues that it is hopeless to pound on such people to try and get them to change their professed belief: that isn’t helpful and can be counterproductive.

Now he also showed that belief in human-caused climate change is similarly polarized, though this time the identification is with Democrats or Republicans.  And so he argued that the problem in Congress isn’t that the science of climate change isn’t well understood by both sides, but that the argument has been framed using a question that, fundamentally, now is heard as “Are you a Democrat or Republican?”

He noted that not all science controversies that enter public policy end up so polarized, and that this kind of polarization is absent in many other countries. So how did climate change end up in this bin, as a litmus test for party affiliation?

Now Naomi Oreskes has argued (as GG understands it–sorry, haven’t read the book yet) that there are industries that, as an act of self-preservation, engage the services of scientists or semi-scientists to obfuscate issues to prevent action that would damage the industry.  Tobacco is a great example.  Yet GG doesn’t recall this becoming quite the defining trait that climate change has (weren’t there tobacco state Republicans and Democrats opposed to tobacco taxing, and Republicans and Democrats elsewhere in favor of it?). Why climate change?  Sure, the Koch Brothers and the coal and oil industries would try to throttle any agenda that would lower demand for their products, but why should this become identified with the GOP?

There are two possible answers.  One is that the issue is so critical, as was slavery in the 1850s, that the parties have essentially realigned along this issue.  This seems implausible.  The other is that somehow the issue got identified with a party and it simply became so much a part of the party’s set of bumper stickers and slogans that it became interchangeable with that party. Now one can understand this identification of oil and coal interests with the GOP in energy-producing states that are heavily Republican like Texas, but why would GOP representatives from Florida, which is not a major oil or coal producer and is at greater risk of damage from climate change, go along with this agenda?

So perhaps when Al Gore’s slideshow on climate change hit the big time, winning an Oscar and a Nobel Prize, he inadvertently politicized it. Having been a member of an administration that was fiercely attacked by Republicans and having lost a hotly contested election that was, curiously enough, so lacking in clearly defined differences that both sides tried to energize their voters and downplay Ralph Nader’s continuing claim that there was no difference between the parties, Al Gore in many ways was something of a Democratic totem. Since Al said climate change was a big deal, did Democrats hop on because they trusted him?  Did Republicans hop off because they hated him?

GG doesn’t know, but it is interesting to speculate.  Having confounded action on climate change with party identity, any opportunity to address this issue is now tangled in other partisan battles over things like gun rights, abortion, and health care.  Which is too bad.  Hopefully somehow we’ll get unstuck.

(Some of us afterwards were discussing this and the suggestion arose that seeing direct harm might be what will move the needle.  So non-vaccination, which was trending to have liberals be the science deniers, suddenly took a downswing as kids got sick.  Unfortunately by the time we are clearly seeing losers to climate change–villages dropping into the Arctic Ocean, flooding in low lying parts of New Jersey, etc.–we are coming in when the changing climate has so much momentum that we are not going to easily reverse it.)


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