Why are climate change skeptics generally politically conservative?

If you take anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as given, with the dire, near world-ending consequences as stated, then the logical conclusions are direct: you either

  1. stop all burning (oxidation) of everything (e.g. Oil, Coal, Natural Gas, Wood, Biomass, Biofuels), and engage in a wholesale replacement of our worldwide Energy & Transportation infrastructure; or
  2. suffer a massive reduction in the Standard of Living of humanity at large (either because we didn't replace the energy infrastructure, or we did nothing and the world as we knew it ends as the planet fries).

Further, since this is very serious, "we're saving the whole planet" stuff, you're going to have to take military action to destroy the facilities of nations that emit mass amounts of carbon dioxide (e.g. coal-fired power plants) if they fail to comply with international "carbon emissions" restrictions. If it really is about saving the planet, that's what you must do.

Energy systems with no operational carbon dioxide emissions:

  • Nuclear Energy
  • Hydroelectric Power
  • Geothermal Energy
  • Solar Power
  • Wind Energy

The last two are unsuitable for "baseline load" because they are intermittent/inconsistent (and, no, batteries aren't good enough at energy storage to make up the difference, so far; ask any Materials Science and Engineering person: energy density is hard). If we don't build lots of nuclear power plants (and probably breeder reactors to use alternative nuclear fuel), count on scenario #2 – life becomes very unpleasant. Perhaps even, "nasty, brutish, and short."

Let's leave the meat cows & methane issue aside for the moment (but a précis: bad news for carnivores).

We might be able to continue aviation with standard, liquid-fueled rocket engines replacing turbojet and turbofans, since combining hydrogen & oxygen for thrust (as the Apollo Program rockets did) results in … water. Air Travel would likely become a lot more exciting.

All told: huge costs, plus warfare, no matter what, if you accept the AGW premise.

So, where's the proof?

Sorry, "correlations" don't cut it when you're talking about changing the way humanity does things on a planetary scale. We need to see causation. Mechanism. The claimants have a very, very high burden of proof to meet, in order for all of us to be convinced to act on this as required (with the attendant high costs) to meet the putative threat. The "precautionary principle" is bullshit.

Conservatism is merely rational in the face of what is being asked of the world.

See also the Copenhagen Consensus.

Now, if it turns out that climate change is a real thing, but it is not human-caused, things go down the adaptation and/or geoengineering path: we keep our existing energy & transportation systems. We move the bits under direct threat (e.g. New Orleans; no more building cities lower than sea level, or if you do, you pay all costs associated with it without subsidies; same goes for Florida and hurricanes). Life goes on, more or less as before.

3 Replies to “Why are climate change skeptics generally politically conservative?”

  1. The linkage between climate skepticism and conservatism is largely an aftereffect of the politics of the 1990s.  After a summer heat wave in 1988 followed by a bad summer drought in 1989, American news media started focusing much more attention to global warming.  National news coverage of global warming temporarily peaked in 1990, which attracted the attention of conservative think tanks who started building alliances with the fossil fuel industry to fund research, analyses, and opinion pieces focused on creating doubt about whether a scientific consensus existed on global warming and anthropogenic climate change.  Then, in 1994, the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress.  After Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, Congressional Republicans began using the House Science Committee as a launching pad to attack environmental regulations.  According to a study of the conservative movement's influence on climate change policy in the 1990s,

    Immediately after the 104th Congress began, the House Committee on Science played a heightened role in attacking existing environmental policies and programs while promoting anti-environmental policies (Kraft 2000). Under the leadership of a handful of powerful Republicans, the Committee on Science led an all-out assault on existing environmental regulatory research programs. For example, Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas) and Rep. John Doolittle (R-California) each introduced bills to repeal the ongoing accelerated phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Also, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) and Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pennsylvania) introduced bills that proposed sizable cuts in environmental research, particularly in climate change and energy research. The House of Representatives later passed these cuts.

    At that point in the 1990s, if you had asked the general public if they were in favor of "environmental protection" phrased in very general and broad terms, then you would get large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans saying they were in favor of it.  For this reason, conservative think tanks and Republicans in Congress found it more advantageous to attack the mainstream scientific consensus developing about climate change than to attack environmentalism or environmental protection more broadly.  Even so, the efforts of Congressional Republicans in promoting skepticism in climate change didn't really pay off for them until after October 1997, when Bill Clinton convened the White House Conference on Global Climate Change in order to build support for his decision to have the United States sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement focused on the reduction of greenhouse gases. 

    As Bill Clinton became more tied to the issue of global warming in the fall and winter of 1997, strong Democrats became more willing to see global warming as a problem, whereas strong Republicans became less willing to see global warming as a problem.  We know this because three psychology professors commissioned two polls about politics and global warming (one from September to October 1997 and one from December 1997 to February 1998) that showed relative bipartisan consensus in the first poll, followed by early signs of partisan polarization on global warming in the second poll.  According to the polls,

    A look beneath the surface reveals a great deal of crosscutting movement. As expected, Democratic citizens moved toward the administration’s point of view at the same time that Republican citizens moved away. Consequently, although the gap between strong Democrats and strong Republicans in terms of many beliefs and attitudes in September–October [1997] was relatively small, it grew substantially by December–February.

    For example, in September–October, 73 percent of strong Democrats thought global warming had been happening, compared to 68 percent of strong Republicans, a gap of five percent. In December–February, these figures were 87 percent and 69 percent, revealing an increased gap of 18 percent. Likewise, in September–October, only 75 percent of strong Democrats thought global warming will happen in the future, compared to 66 percent of strong Republicans, a nine percent gap. In December–February, these figures were 77 percent and 55 percent, respectively, representing a 22 percent gap.

    Another example involves the belief that the U.S. government should limit air pollution by U.S. businesses. Eighty-eight percent of strong Democrats and 84 percent of strong Republicans said so in September–October (a four percent gap), whereas 94 percent of strong Democrats and 80 percent of strong Republicans said so in December–February (a 14 percent gap). And when asked whether the U.S. should require recipients of foreign aid to reduce pollution, 74 percent of strong Democrats and 67 percent of strong Republicans agreed in September–October, a seven percent gap. In December–February, 84 percent of strong Democrats and 70 percent of strong Republicans expressed this view, a gap of 14 percent.

    Rank-and-file party members respond positively to ideological cues from elected officials in their own party, while responding negatively to ideological cues from the opposing party.  When Al Gore made climate change his pet cause and Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, Democrats who might not have looked deeply into the issue of global warming, became much easier to convince about the scientific consensus on global warming.  By contrast, rank-and-file Republicans began to doubt the consensus behind global warming, either out of antipathy to Bill Clinton or a desire to bring their views into conformity with what Republican members of Congress believed. 

    Since the first partisan opinion shifts in 1997, Democratic and Republican partisans have become increasingly more polarized in their views about climate change.  The following makes clear that the linkage between partisan affiliation and viewpoints on climate change grows stronger with each passing year.


    Dunlap, Riley E., and Araon M. McCright. "A widening gap: Republican and Democratic views on climate change." Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 50.5 (2008): 26-35.

    Krosnick, Jon A., Allyson L. Holbrook, and Penny S. Visser. "The impact of the fall 1997 debate about global warming on American public opinion." Public Understanding of Science 9.3 (2000): 239-260.

    McCright, Aaron M., and Riley E. Dunlap. "Defeating Kyoto: The conservative movement's impact on US climate change policy." Social Problems 50.3 (2003): 348-373.

  2. Sadly, some of the "answers" here do not even attempt to answer the question: instead they say "Why do I personally not agree with it", usually by quoting "Zombie Lies" or demonstrating their misunderstanding of the science…

    So an honest attempt to say why "Why are climate skeptics generally politically conservative?" (in no particular order).

    And then with a very important twist- one that I think is interesting & I hope the conservatives who have answered may ponder….

    By the way, this is primarily a US conservative issue.  There are few British or Australian conservatives who would also say it, though mostly those closest to US politics, but it is a small minority – and even fewer from other countries.

    1. Conservatives are, by definition, conservative. They favour the status quo, and are wary of "big projects". Addressing AGW would be a big change to status quo, and would be a big project.
    2. Conservatives are inherently wary of Government action. It is almost certain that AGW would require government scale intervention.
    3. Many of the approaches to addressing AGW involve a tax (carbon tax, cap & trade); people who are philosophically opposed to taxes will not be receptive (event though a carbon tax could reduce other worse taxes, and it has almost universal support from economist precisely for that rewason)
    4. Similarly, it will interfere with the free market. Some economists describe AGW as a market failure (Lord Stern called it biggest market failure in human history) but if your starting point is that markets never fail you will be wary.
    5. Conservatives tend to trust business more than liberals: if business leaders say things are OK, one political faction will believe them more. (This is weak logic I know: when GE, BP & insurers discuss things they all stress AGW as real & serious)
    6. Media. Few people (of either political flavour) read the scientific journals, or even Scientific American or New Scientist (both of whom have excellent micro-sites on the subject, by the way – well worth a read. They specifically address some of the fallacious points made in some of the other answers).

      However, people get their facts from media: conservative media is anti-AGW (Fox, WSJ) and so their readers will be influenced. I do wonder how much this is cause, effect – probably both in a feedback loop.

    7. Any policy is a cost-benefit analysis. In general, conservatives tend to focus more on costs, liberals on potential benefits. So the debate will be "pulled" in different directions.
    8. Tribal. Al Gore populized AGW. If you don't like Al Gore then AGW must be wrong.

    UPDATE 2: As Jevan Lemoine points out most of these are about the policy, not about the science.

    The question could refer to either, but I happen to think that distinction is very important.

    It is entirely possible to accept the scientific consensus on AGW ("the world is warming as a result of human CO2 emissions")  but disagree with policy implications ("…but we do not need the Kyoto treaty, for example").
    Lomberg, for example, does just this.

    That is a very respectable position, and one I have a lot of sympathy with.

    However, most prominent conservatives do not do this – they disagree with the scientific position too. ("The world is not warming", "humans cannot do that", "It is all the sun", "CO2 is good for plants", "CO2 is not a greenhouse gas"), etc

    I can only think of one reason for this & apologise that it is not very complimentary – though it is very human.

    I would like to think of some more legitimate or balanced view but this is the only logic I can think of.

    Because the answer is unpleasant in terms of policy (see above) the conservatives are more inclined to find "logic" (even if fallacious) that means that do not to confront the policy.   

    If you can believe there is no problem, then you do never have to face questions about how to solve the problem

    This is well known psychological defect in all humans (liberals have it too, all humans do) — but in this particular case it explains why conservatives in particular try so hard not to accept the science.

    Indeed, Freud describes it denial – which is why that word is used:

    Denial, in ordinary English usage, is asserting that a statement or allegation is not true.[1]

    The same word is used for a psychological defense mechanism postulated by Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.[2][3]

    Jevan and I discuss this in the comments.
    My feeling is his remarks substantiate the point I make here; he would disagree.

    The twist?

    Not all conservatives are skeptical of AGW.

    And of course it was Margaret Thatcher who, in 1989, became the first world leader to raise the need to tackle global warming.

    She did so in stark terms, referring to
    "a new, insidious danger … the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself".
    In a speech which astonished the United Nations, she continued:

    "The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto. Change to the sea around us, change to the atmosphere above, leading in turn to change in the world's climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all."

    A link to her full speech is here:
    Page on guardian.co.uk…

    The evidence is there. The damage is being done. What do we, the international community, do about it?

    Of course, Mrs Thatcher was a qualified scientist – that probably helped.

    Or, more recently, David Cameron, Conservative PM of Britain made a very good point

    Tackling climate change is our  responsibility – to the next generation.

    He spoke about how preserving the climate and thinking long term are all conservative values.

  3. Update: No answer to this question would be complete without referring to this recent study: Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. discussed at Denying Problems When We Don’t Like the Solutions. From the latter:

    For climate change, the researchers conducted an experiment to examine why more Republicans than Democrats seem to deny its existence, despite strong scientific evidence that supports it.
    One explanation, they found, may have more to do with conservatives' general opposition to the most popular solution — increasing government regulation — than with any difference in fear of the climate change problem itself, as some have proposed.

    Participants in the experiment, including both self-identified Republicans and Democrats, read a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century. They were then asked to evaluate a proposed policy solution to address the warming.
    When the policy solution emphasized a tax on carbon emissions or some other form of government regulation, which is generally opposed by Republican ideology, only 22 percent of Republicans said they believed the temperatures would rise at least as much as indicated by the scientific statement they read.
    But when the proposed policy solution emphasized the free market, such as with innovative green technology, 55 percent of Republicans agreed with the scientific statement.
    For Democrats, the same experiment recorded no difference in their belief, regardless of the proposed solution to climate change.

    If the most immediate and logical solutions to climate change would only favour traditional conservative policy, less conservatives would deny the facts.

    My first answer:

    Because the weather is left wing. No, seriously…

    Due to confirmation bias – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Con

    The scientific facts are a much bigger challenge to  free market fundamentalism than to pretty much any other orientation.

    (Notice the European Commissioner for Climate Action is a Conservative – only in the US has the Republicans been short-wired to leave their original conservative ideology in regards to the environment.)

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