My last post was about the evolution of conservative identity politics over the past 40 or 50 years, which made hostility to climate science more or less inevitable, regardless of how climate scientists chose to communicate their findings. Introduce climate science into a milieu characterized by suspicion of scientific elites, hostility toward government, and tribal support for fossil fuels and sprawl, and, well ... Al Gore big-government liberal U.N. hoax! 'Twas ever fated.
I make the point for two reasons. One is to push back against the endless tide of sentiment blaming climate scientists or advocates for the right wing's madness on climate. Nobody -- not Al Gore, not Barack Obama, not dirty climate bloggers -- can make the right behave rationally on this, except the right itself. Conservatives are grown-ups making their own decisions and responsible for their own actions. This is not to say that communication around climate change has been particularly adept -- I've spent 10 years criticizing it! -- but it is to say that conservatives are freestanding moral agents and not mere clay shaped by the messages of climate hawks.
The second reason is that an understanding of the historical roots of American cultural polarization sheds light on the climate fight. The clash of cultural identities brought about by the resurgent right, indeed the battle over modernity itself, precedes, both temporally and psychologically, many of the factors that people tend to blame for polarization on climate change. Especially in the U.S., polarization is so deep, I will argue, that any attempt to present climate science "neutrally," as pure facts and information with no cultural valence, is doomed to failure. We climate hawks cannot back our way out of cultural meaning; the only way out is through.
To begin, let's turn to a great recent post from Dan Kahan of Yale's Cultural Cognition Project. It is built around a simple observation: Realists and "skeptics" hold very different views on climate science, but they share a deep cluelessness about how science is communicated, how people assess evidence, and how polarization occurs.