The more I’ve written and thought about social psychology, the more I’ve come to appreciate the significance of messengers. Human beings are not impartial evidence-gathering and reasoning machines. We are social animals. It matters to us what people like us think — our tribe, those who we respect and grant authority. Consciously or not, conservatives better understand our social natures and are more adept at exploiting the mechanisms of social influence. They know that political power has less to do with “issues” and persuasion than with establishing and enforcing tribal norms.
It used to be (way back in 2008) that there were two kinds of Republicans, those who took climate change seriously and those who dismissed it. Then Obama came to office with climate change on his agenda. Now there’s only one kind of Republican. Conformity is enforced by intense social pressure. Republicans who stray, who say anything accommodating, who even acknowledge that scientists might be on to something, are savaged by the base and the conservative media complex.
By and large, conservative office holders have learned their lesson: there may be many Republicans out there uncomfortable with rejecting science, but for now they’re keeping quiet. It only takes a few brave souls to get something started, though. That’s why it matters when a conservative like D.R. Tucker writes “Confessions of a Climate Change Convert.” I responded with an “open letter to a conservative climate change convert” and yesterday Tucker and I appeared on Brad Friedman’s radio show and discussed where conservatives and enviros might find common ground on climate.
It also matters that Bob Inglis — a former six-term representative from South Carolina — is going to form a conservative coalition to address climate change. The idea is to “turn away from the populist rejection of science” while “looking for ways for the free enterprise system to solve the problem.” Inglis admits it will probably take a few election cycles for it to gain any traction. Maybe even that is optimistic. But it’s courageous for him to be lighting a match.
No one can be sure what will break the strange fever that’s gripped the right on the subject of climate. But it’s important. Not only has it put conservatives in an ultimately untenable relationship with reality, it has made progressives intellectually lazy. When it comes to climate, they have only themselves to talk to! Never a good idea. Finding credible conservatives willing to stand up for science should be a top priority for climate hawks in the next few years.
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