New to Texas Tech, it was my first year as an atmospheric science professor. We’d just moved to Lubbock, the second most conservative town in the United States. A colleague asked me to guest teach his undergraduate geology course while he was out of town.
The packed lecture hall was cavernous and dark. Many of the students were glued to their phones; others were slumped over, dozing. I began with the fundamental components of the climate system; I waded through the geologic climate record and ice core data; and finally, I explained natural cycles and the role of carbon dioxide—both natural and human-produced—in controlling Earth’s climate.
I ended my lecture, as many professors do, with a hopeful invitation for any questions. One hand immediately shot up.
Someone had been listening—and cared enough to ask a question! I thought.
The first student stood up. I looked encouraging. He cleared his throat. And then, in a loud and belligerent tone, he stated:
“You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?”
That was my baptism by fire into what has now become a fact of life across the entire country.
Over the last fifteen years, climate change has shifted from a respectably bipartisan issue (remember John McCain?) to become the most politically polarized issue in the entire United States.1 Today, the best predictor of our opinions on climate change (Is it real? Is it humans? And should we do anything about it?) is not our familiarity with science, nor is it our level of education.2,3 It is simply where we lie on the political spectrum.4
How did we get to this point, where our political affiliation became the best determinant of whether we agree with the simple fact—and with over 97 percent of scientists5,6—that human choices are changing the Earth’s climate?
Climate change is increasingly being discussed in moral and even religious terms. Historian Jean-François Mouhot compares slavery with fossil fuel use.7 The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) equates caring for climate change to caring for the “least of these,” a reference to Matthew 25:40.8 Later this year, Pope Francis will release a highly anticipated encyclical that is expected to issue an unambiguous moral call to act on climate.9
At the same time, resistance to the idea that humans are changing climate, and that this human-made problem requires a solution, is also being couched in faith-related language. Republican politicians and pundits remind their listeners that the Earth is God’s domain, not man’s, and rail against the arrogance of those who suggest we humans have usurped God’s role in the universe.10,11 They hyperbolize scientific claims—Scientists predict sea level rise will flood the earth, and winter will be no more!—then use the Bible to disprove them: God promised Noah he would never flood the Earth again, and seasons will endure as long as the Earth remains.12
Polls confirm a link between religion and our opinions about climate change. Those attending mainline churches differ little from the average. The more conservative the denomination, however, the more likely people are to say that human activities have nothing to do with climate. Specifically, around two-thirds of white evangelicals would say there is no solid evidence of human-induced climate change, and around the same number would say they are unconcerned about climate change (Figure 1).13 It’s no surprise, therefore, that many believe the roots of this resistance lie in religion.
It is true that arguments invoking God’s sovereignty spark a visceral reaction in Bible-believing Christians. Presenting science as the enemy of religion is a well-trodden path, familiarized by decades’ worth of debate over evolution, origins, and other issues on which scientists and people of faith have disagreed. Climate change has even been framed as a belief, or a religion, by those who agree and those who disagree with the science.14With the vast majority of Americans already belonging to a religion, though, that doesn’t leave many unaffiliated looking to join what some have facetiously labeled “Al Gore’s Church of Climatology.”15
The beauty of social science, though, is that it can answer important questions about what makes us tick. Does adherence to conservative Christianity automatically imply rejection of climate science? When data are collected and analyzed, they paint a complex but definitive answer.
According to UC San Diego sociologist John Evans, the real driver is not “participation in fundamentalist protestant discourse”—translation: attending a conservative church—but rather conservative political ideology, combined with age. In other words, the older and the more conservative we are, the more likely we are to disagree with the findings of climate science.17 Sociologist Riley Dunlap and his coauthor Aaron McCright found such a strong relationship between climate denial and political affiliation that they titled their study: “Cool Dudes: The Denial of Climate Change among Conservative White Males in the U.S.”18
It is not being evangelical that makes people doubt the reality of climate science: it is being politically conservative. And viewed from this perspective, the whole thing starts to make sense.
At its core, climate change is a Tragedy of the Commons. First coined by Garrett Hardin in 1968, based on an 1833 publication by William Forster Lloyd, this concept dates back to the time when villages shared a common grazing area. Each individual villager would benefit from grazing as many animals as they could on the commons. If everyone did that, though, the land would become dry and barren and no one would be able to graze. As individuals, villagers lacked the incentive to limit their own behavior for the common good. Only by acting together was it possible to preserve this shared resource.
In the same way, our planet is now our global commons. Whenever we dig coal, oil, or natural gas out of the ground and burn it, we release that carbon into the atmosphere—carbon that would not naturally reach the atmosphere for millions of years.
A natural blanket of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases already wraps the Earth, keeping it nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it would be otherwise. But hundreds of years’ worth of carbon emissions have artificially increased the thickness of that natural blanket. Today, more of the Earth’s heat is being trapped inside the atmosphere. And the Earth is heating up.19
Not only that, but about a quarter of the carbon we humans produce each year ends up in the ocean. There, carbon doesn’t trap heat: it does something that may be even more dangerous. It changes the chemistry of the ocean, reacting with seawater to form carbonic acid; acid that, in turn, depletes the carbonate ions needed by small marine creatures, the base of the ocean food chain, to create their shells.
Shouldn’t such valuable resources—our atmosphere and our oceans—be protected?
Most of us would say, yes!
Here’s the thing, though. Individually, we lack the incentive to act.
Some barriers exist simply because we don’t know enough. We go to the home improvement store and stand in the lightbulb aisle, staring at unfamiliar-looking bulbs. What type of LED should I use to replace the old 60-watt incandescent in my favorite reading lamp? The last one I tried felt like an interrogation room!
Other barriers arise because we have different priorities. We may live in a big city with access to public transit but prefer to drive to work because it gets us there faster, or maybe we just like to spend our time alone.
The biggest barrier, though, is this: We don’t have a price on carbon. And because there is no price, we lack the information to make sound decisions.
In 2007 the US Supreme Court ruled that carbon is a pollutant.20 For most pollutants, polluters pay. Foul a waterway? The polluter pays to restore it. Oil rig explodes? The polluter pays the cleanup costs. But for carbon? The polluter doesn’t pay. We do, through our taxes.
It used to be that climate change was a distant issue, affecting only those in the Arctic or future generations. Today, however, climate change is here and now. Record floods and even snowstorms in the Northeast; stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic; devastating droughts across California and the southern Great Plains; killer heat waves in the Midwest—we’ve seen all of these in recent years, and we’re paying for the increasing risk of impacts.21 Of course we know that these types of extreme climate and weather events have happened before, and will happen again, even without humans interfering with climate. But climate change is loading the dice, increasing the risk of some of these events and making others stronger.
Who pays the cost of rebuilding and repairing damaged infrastructure, insuring crops, and providing disaster relief? We do. But we don’t pay it in a way that connects to carbon emissions. We pay it through our taxes and through increased costs: in building materials, after Hurricane Katrina; in hay bales, during the drought; in water costs, when it must be shipped in rather than pumped from the nearest reservoir. And this means that each of us, as individuals, lacks the cost incentive to make choices that reduce our collective carbon impact on the global commons.
What’s required to put a price on carbon? Government action.
Hatred of “taxes, and an overbearing government telling me how to run my life,” are burned deep in the American psyche.23 The roots of this opposition extend all the way back to the American Revolution. So is it any surprise that there is such a rancorous, ideological reaction to climate-change solutions that, by definition, require collective action? Particularly when that action requires the government to levy a price—or let’s be blunt, a tax—on carbon, a substance previously perceived to be cost free for all Americans to produce as they desired?
I’ve learned a lot since that original geology class.
These days, I don’t start off a climate science presentation by talking about ice cores. I begin by talking about what we all care about—water, for example.
I carefully connect the dots between water and climate, then between climate and carbon. I talk about local, politically neutral solutions—conservation, technological innovation.
But I can’t hide the fact that the more carbon we pour into our atmosphere, the greater the risks of serious and even potentially dangerous consequences; consequences that will become increasingly and eventually impossible to adapt to and prepare for.
Just a few months ago, I was speaking to some water managers in Texas.
At the end of my talk, an older man raised his hand. I looked encouraging (once again). He cleared his throat. And then, in a reasonable and genuinely concerned tone, he stated:
“Everything you’ve said makes sense. But I don’t want the government telling me how to set my thermostat!”
Therein lie the roots of climate denial.
Yes, polls do show that the more religiously conservative we are, the less likely we are to think climate change is real. But as Galen Carey, from the National Association of Evangelicals, says: Evangelicals oppose actions to slow climate change not based on a religious argument but because of fears the government will interfere with their freedom. And it is easier to question the science than to admit humans are changing climate, but we don’t want to do anything about it.
How can we overcome these substantial and deep-rooted barriers? I believe that at least part of the answer to this question lies in the very areas perceived to be obstacles: faith and conservatism.
Nearly 80 percent of Americans identify as Christians.24 For Christians, climate change directly intersects with mandates to be responsible for creation, to love others as Christ loved us, and to care for the poor and the needy.25 Those nations most vulnerable to climate change are the very nations whose inhabitants already suffer from malnutrition, food shortages, water scarcity, and disease (Fig. 3). Climate change is deepening the chasm between the “haves” and “have-nots” across the globe. Failing to care about climate change is a failure to love. What is more Christian than to love our global neighbor as ourselves?
From the perspective of conservative values, what is more sensible than to invest in homegrown renewable energy, with Texas, California, and Iowa leading the way (Fig. 4)? What is more consistent with free market economics than to unleash the power of the market by putting an accurate price on carbon?27,28,29 And what is more conservative than to conserve natural resources? As Ronald Reagan stated in 1984, “Preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense. Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources.”30
This isn’t just a pipe dream. Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis’ republicEn community promotes conservative, free market solutions to energy and climate issues. ConservAmerica, a group of Republicans, conservatives, and independents who share a passion for the environment, aims to educate people on conservative approaches to the environment, energy, and conservation. A new Libertarian think tank called Niskanen Center, named after former chairman of the Cato Institute Bill Niskane, is focusing on replacing carbon regulations with market-friendly emission controls. And there is even a Green Tea Party now, whose mission includes generating creative new solutions to collective, societal problems.
On the other side of the world, things are also starting to change. In China—long famed for its rampant coal use and appalling air quality—carbon emissions, rather than continuing to grow, may actually have dropped in 2014.32 China also leads the way in solar power manufacturing and employs more than 2.5 million people across the renewable energy sector. In terms of energy generation, China is number one in wind and stands second after Germany for solar. India ranks fourth for renewable energy jobs and fifth for wind production, respectively. The US, in comparison, is third in renewable energy jobs, second in wind, and fifth in solar energy production.33
Here in the United States, burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the science of climate change has endangered our global commons. It has worsened the very real issues we already combat today—hunger, inequity, water shortages, and disease. But climate denial, with its roots buried deep in ideology masked by religion and politics, has one more devastating impact. Lacking a price on carbon, it can also rob us of the opportunities the clean energy economy presents.
To meet the challenges of a changing climate and a changing society, we need more than science. I, as a scientist, have learned to frame this issue around our values. We as a society must do this too. We need our values, our ideology, and even our faith. The foundation of a brighter future is made of scientific facts and common sense, knit together with an unwavering appreciation of what is right and just.
1. Exit polls from the 2014 elections: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/11/04/us/politics/2014-exit-polls.html.
2. D. Kahan, E. Peters, M. Wittlin, P. Slovic, L. Larrimore Ouellette, D. Braman, and G. Mandel, “The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks,” Nature Climate Change 2 (2012): 732–735.
3. Gallup, 2015. College-Educated Republicans Most Skeptical of Global Warming. Available online atwww.gallup.com/poll/182159/college-educated-republicans-skeptical-global-warming.aspx.
4. Gallup, 2015. Conservative Republicans Alone on Global Warming’s Timing. Available online atwww.gallup.com/poll/182807/conservative-republicans-alone-global-warming-timing.aspx.
5. J. Cook, D. Nuccitelli, S. Green, M. Richardson, B. Winkler, R. Painting, R. Way, P. Jacobs, and A. Skuce, “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature,” Environmental Research Letters 8 (2013), 024024.
7. J-F Mouhot, “Once, Men Abused Slaves. Now We Abuse Fossil Fuels,” The Guardian, 2012. Available online athttp://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/feb/03/fossil-fuels-slavery.
8. D. Boorse, K. Wilson, C. Shore, T. Ackerman, and G. Carey, Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment, National Association of Evangelicals, 2012. Available online at http://nae.net/loving-the-least-of-these/.
9. P. Farrell, “Pope Francis’s New ‘Climate Change Encyclical’ Sneak Preview,” 2015. Available online atwww.marketwatch.com/story/pope-franciss-new-climate-change-encyclical-sneak-preview-2015-04-09.
10. T. Germain, “The Anti-Science Climate Denier Caucus,” 2013. Available online athttp://thinkprogress.org/climate-denier-caucus-114th-congress/.
11. B. Tashman, “James Inhofe Says the Bible Refutes Climate Change,” 2012. Available online atwww.rightwingwatch.org/content/james-inhofe-says-bible-refutes-climate-change#sthash.nizT47KJ.dpuf.
13. Pew Research Foundation, “Religious Groups’ Views on Global Warming,” 2009. Available online athttp://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/16/religious-groups-views-on-global-warming/.
14. R. Leber, “You Can’t ‘Believe’ in Climate Change: It’s Not a Religion. It’s a Scientific Fact.” 2015. Available online at www.newrepublic.com/article/121263/climate-change-isnt-belief-religion-its-scientific-fact.
15. Pew Research Religious and Public Life Project, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Report 1: Religious Affiliation,” 2008. Available online at http://religions.pewforum.org/reports.
16. R. P. Jones, D. Cox, and J. Navarro-Rivera, Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics: Why Americans Are Conflicted about Climate Change, Environmental Policy, and Science (Public Religion Research Institute, 2014). Available online at http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2014-Climate-Change-FINAL1.pdf.
18. A. M. McCright and R. E. Dunlap, “Cool Dudes: The Denial of Climate Change among Conservative White Males in the United States,” Global Environmental Change, 2011, doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.06.003.
19. J. Walsh, D. Wuebbles, K. Hayhoe, K. Kunkel, R. Somerville, G. Stephens, P. Thorne, R. Vose, M. Wehner, and J. Willis, The Science of Climate Change, Appendix to the U.S. National Climate Assessment Report, (Washington, DC: US Global Change Research Program, 2013).
20. Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Supreme Court Ruling. Available online at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/06pdf/05-1120.pdf
21. J. Walsh, D. Wuebbles, K. Hayhoe, J. Kossin, K. Kunkel, G. Stephens, P. Thorne, R. Vose, M. Wehner, J. Willis, D. Anderson, S. Doney, R. Feely, P. Hennon, V. Kharin, T. Knutson, F. Landerer, T. Lenton, J. Kennedy, and R. Somerville, Our Changing Climate, Chapter 2 of the U.S. National Climate Assessment Report, (Washington, DC: US Global Change Research Program, 2014).
22. NOAA, 2014. www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/summary-stats.
24. Pew Research Religious and Public Life Project, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Report 1: Religious Affiliation,” 2008. Available online at http://religions.pewforum.org/reports.
26. J. Samson, D. Berteaux, B. McGill, and M. Humphries, “Geographic Disparities and Moral Hazards in the Predicted Impacts of Climate Change on Human Populations,” Global Ecol. Biogeography 20 (2011): 523–544. Available online at http://fuqar.uqar.ca/files/biodiversite-nordique/Samsonetal2011GEB.pdf.
27. M. Tercek, “The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax: A Q&A with Jerry Taylor,” 2015. Available online athttp://blog.nature.org/conservancy/2015/05/05/the-conservative-case-for-a-carbon-tax-qa-with-jerry-taylor/.
28. B. Plumer, “Could Republicans Ever Support a Carbon Tax? Bob Inglis Thinks So.” 2013.www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/14/could-republicans-ever-support-a-carbon-tax-bob-inglis-thinks-so/.
30. Ronald Reagan quote from http://conservamerica.org/conservativequotes/.
31. American Wind Energy Association, 2015. www.awea.org/resources/statefactsheets.aspx.
33. Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, “Renewables 2014 Global Status Report,” 2015. Available online at www.ren21.net/ren21a.
(This article originally appeared in Prairie Fire. It has been reprinted here with permission.)