conservative ideology and climate change

conservative ideology and climate change

I see that lobbyists are paying to bring Christopher Monckton – the high-profile climate denier – on another speaking tour of Australia. Earlier this month, Monckton accused Australia’s climate advisor, Professor Ross Garnaut, of being a fascist. People’s behaviour in the climate change debate, or what passes for sensible debate in this country, has been interesting and frustrating. Denial and spoiling tactics have been adopted by people who seem to carry an agenda. It is an immutable fact that the vast majority of these people are conservatives and reactionaries, rather than progressives and true liberals. Apart from their characteristic resistance to change, I’ve struggled to understand this particular conservative rationale and driving purpose, until reading the insights presented by Tim Dean in the Drum in March 2011.

 My blog post is stimulated by his piece, but largely expresses my own frustration with the situation we find ourselves in today. Of course, these views don’t apply to all climate change deniers or all conservatives. I am trying to understand the motives of deniers rather than to bash them. It is not about conservatives being bad and progressives being good. Clearly all conservatives and progressives don’t think and behave in the same way and not everyone will agree with this generalisation of the conservative view, however analysis of specific demographics, ideologies and patterns of behaviour can be instructive.

Why is it that so many conservatives appear immune to the overwhelming scientific evidence and rational argument that suggests Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is real? The answer may lie in the fact that to conservatives, climate change is not about science or economics – it is about an ideology and politics, as Clive Hamilton points out in his book “Requiem for a Species”. Most of us decide at some time or other where our political beliefs sit and rarely stray from this belief. When a concept like AGW comes along, we tend to reference our political belief system before assessing the evidence. When facts don’t support the pre-existing belief system, then the facts must be wrong! Often rational thought processes are subsumed in the emotional responses to challenges to a political belief system or to our implicit worldview. AGW represents a fundamental threat to the conservative ideology or worldview. Denying it doesn’t make climate change go away, it only makes dealing with it even harder, for us and future generations. There is also an argument that the more climate change is associated with the Greens, the left and environmentalists, the less comfortable conservatives are about embracing it.

 Various Newspoll and other polls have consistently shown that a big proportion of the conservative demographic behaving as climate change deniers, are over 50 year old males. Why? Maybe they want to eliminate challenges to their comfortable existence, despite the consequences for future generations, at any cost. Dealing with climate change is uncomfortable for many of them as it requires, at least to some degree, embracing social consciousness and stepping away from selfishness and mass consumerism. Unfortunately the vested interest of many conservatives is so strong that only climate related disasters of increasingly devastating magnitude, which personally affect them, will have any chance of changing their world view.

 The one thing that intrigues me is the veracity of their sense of purpose on this issue and their relative indifference to other issues. Maybe it relates to control – one thing this demographic holds disproportionately strongly. The thought of losing control of control, control of wealth, and control of assets certainly sharpens their minds, as do potential changes in power relationships in society. But have they really thought things through? Ironically, conservatives have the most to lose from the impact of AGW, as they control most of the money! Why can’t conservatives see nature as an asset that supports humanity? Failure to do so is to support an unsustainable world. Perhaps, as Lewansoky points out, conservatives with a free market ideology will be more able to accept AGW science when it is framed in a favourable context (lots of technology, opportunities to make money etc.)

 In even further irony, the tactics many deniers adopt, either deliberately or unknowingly, generally become supporting proof for the issue they are trying to discredit. Spoiling tactics take on many forms including exaggeration of potential harm, use of irrelevant issues, appeals to personal freedom and magnifying disagreement among scientists. Suddenly, non-scientists claim that science is about opinion rather than fact. Or they talk of the need for more peer review. Clutching at straws, they selectively search the haystack to find the needle represented by a dissenting scientist. Whether by ignorance or spoiling, they confuse weather patterns with climatic change. They confuse El Nino and La Nina cycles, and Ice Age effects, with AGW. They reserve the right to “make up their own minds” on this issue, while accepting what science says as the truth on other issues.

When their arguments start to flounder, they resort to saying that Australia (as the biggest per capita polluter in the world) shouldn’t act because the rest of the world isn’t acting! You should see the massive greenhouse gas reduction programs in the latest 5 year plan for China!! When all else fails, they play the man rather than the ball, attacking the motives and integrity of the scientists.  Assisted by News Limited media and “shockjocks”, who have irresponsibly confounded the debate on this subject in Australia, they throw mud so that some sticks, causing doubt where there should be acceptance and a desire to understand more and seek the best solutions. Please forgive me for drawing the analogy with conservative Anglicans who thought that Darwin was a left wing activist as he used massive amounts of scientific evidence to overthrow dogma and ignorance.

 Perhaps we should cut some slack to those people not trained as scientists, because they don’t know what they don’t know. Doing post graduate science, I can remember my professor saying, “a science graduate is a person who is introduced to bodies of knowledge in such a way that he or she can continue to relate to them”. The undergraduate degree taught us to gather evidence, test, analyseand think in a logical way and establish hypotheses that can be subsequently confirmed. I’ve heard deniers and sceptics who claim to have better knowledge and the right to be heard as they have “read many books on the subject”, yet understand neither the concepts of theory, probability and proof in a scientific context. It’s amazing how many of them believe they have the technical and intellectual capacity to look at the data themselves and arrive at the correct conclusion, and how their conclusions are radically different to those with the relevant training and expertise. Then there are others – people with a genuine desire to learn, who are vulnerable to manipulation by legitimate sounding conservatives without adequate science, and to the propaganda of some hard line Christians and the resources sector lobby.

 Climate change deniers don’t have a mortgage on being selective in the information they seek and use to support their ideologies. While progressives are more accepting of the science, they can also be selective in mounting their arguments, and can also be driven by their own worldview. So how do we break the deadlock of our implicit, and often irrational, worldviews or our political attitudes? The circuit breaker is awareness. When considering an issue such as AGW, we should pause and reflect on whether our feelings are inspired by evidence and reason, or by a strong emotional inclination. Think about how we’re approaching the issue, and how we’re injecting it with value, and the benefits of keeping an open mind.

 Science has established beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of the greenhouse effect (without which our planet would be a frozen wasteland), increases in CO2 levels produced by humans and increases in global average temperatures. The science has also established, on the balance of probabilities to at least a 90% level, that humans are the primary cause of that change. We should be at consensus on this point and now be sensibly considering what action to take. That’s the subject of another blog post.


  1. I have a very good friend that is the super denyer(how do you spell it ? Is it the same as in stockings? denier?) Any way if Ken says denier that’s OK with me. I cannot believe how hard Ken has tried to be fair,reasonable and objective in his first class challenge of our thoughts. I envy him.I have been accused by my good friend as being a a conservationist based on faith alone–and that is a very polite interpretation of what he has said to me. My friend IEW is a rabid denier—and he is a very intelligent man, We all have friends like that.
    I have rationalized my thoughts into a few simple issues.As examples Port Pirie and Mount Isa are continuing to spread lead based oxides and sulphates into the atmosphere. Call it CO2 call it what you want. There is a great fear of job loss in these regions. There is no sense of urgency to ameliorate this situation–this is economics and politics at work in a real sense.
    Who in our country wants to vote for more tax? Only altruistic people who can afford it. Port Pirie is not a marginal seat.
    I could go on like a preacher —this is an issue of a superordinate nature. In fact despite IEW’s allegations one does need to have a faithfilled belief in what is right for the future as distinct from short term monetary profit motivation.
    Let us start in a very focussed way. Concentrate our effort. Pick a place like Port Pirie and fix it with government money. Then show it to the rest of the country.– A cheap empirical option as well. As a preacher could say “a touch of saint Thomas” I have been there. I have run a lead smelter.

  2. Graham – had a good laugh about the stockings – the higher the denier the thicker, right? had a grandmother with 15 denier stockings, but she was a progressive and would certainly not have been a “flat earther” or denier. Thanks for your kind words. Not an easy subject when there’s so much emotion involved. Agree with picking off the problem areas and also support a market based mechanism across the board. Maybe I can get ou to write a guest blog on the solutions?

  3. Ken,
    Always wonderful to see your patience and persistence.
    The really weird thing about global warming is that we spend time discussing the “science”. People like David Murray who runs the future fund, are sure that they have a rational opinion against global warming: they are used to managing billions of dollars (in his cae 71 billion at last count) so they must understand what a rational argument is,right?
    Unfortunately, they don’t understand even elementary science: neither do many scientists.economists, engineers, lawyers, etc.whenever there is no simple, linear, equilibrium.
    So here are the two things to get anybody past arguing about the science. One, increasing greenhouse gases cause infra red radiation to be absorbed,and two, water has reverse solubility for carbon dioxide. Beyond that, you can get a Nobel prize for a further insight.But unless you don’t agree with these two easily measurable effects, man is causing the planet to warm, especially at the poles. With unknown consequences other than a lot of ice melting, but unless you live in a miserable place like Siberia, it is probably a bad risk.
    The science (beyond these two facts)is interesting to a few scientists, for everybody else it is just a way of expressing their fear that they are going to be worse off. Actually, the biggest problem is population increase, and over consumption is only really a result of advertizing by those who have a vested interest, but it is a lot easier for us all to become science sceptics than to address overpopulation and advertizing by vested interests—-I wish that the science of human behaviour was as simple as radiation absorption and carbon dioxide solubility.
    Regards from Noel, who spends his time trying to understand anything about the brain. And walking, eating and drinking wine in France. And enjoying the grandchildren generation.

  4. Regardless of the cause the one point that most people miss when talking about climate is that we have to be prepared for change. It is pure human fantasy to assume that the Earth today is some sort of steady state system that is supposed to remain exactly as it is. Ocean levels will change and coastlines along with it. Rain belts will shift (North Africa used to be the bread basket of the Roman Empire before the Sahara ate it) and glaciers will flow and retreat. Nearly all the ideas in the climate debate are built on the false supposition that the climate that supports the current geopolitical state is the norm. Let’s quit trying to find someone to blame and figure out how to deal with change that will come regardless of whose fault it is.

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