David and I have apparently crossed blog streams (very dangerous; never do this), but I do want to expand a bit on this basic idea: climate change skepticism has little to do with science. Rather, it is an outgrowth of the culture war.

This point seems both totally obvious and strangely unremarked. At the risk of generalizing, environmentalists tend to view climate change denialism as a top-down, money-driven phenomenon. Energy producers, auto manufacturers, oil companies, and other interested parties court politicians, buy friendly scientists, and groom armies of lawyers, lobbyists, and op-ed writers to push their agenda. Or so the theory goes. And, of course, there’s a lot of merit to that theory. You don’t need a compass to follow the trail of money.

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But the theory only goes so far. A shrinking but significant proportion of average American citizens reject the reality of climate change. The reasons for this are surely overdetermined — scientific confusion, media spin, hopelessness in the face of a big problem, etc. — but it’s impossible to ignore the basic cultural resentment underlying everything from Planet Gore to the regular flow of blog comments and email I get from dedicated dead-enders.

Consider that most of the large companies vested in the status quo don’t themselves refute the basic reality of global warming anymore. Here’s the president of Shell Oil: “We have to deal with greenhouse gases … the debate is over. When 98 percent of scientists agree, who [can] say, ‘Let’s debate the science'[?]”

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And here’s what Sharon Begley, a science journalist at Newsweek who has written extensively on global warming, had to say when asked about the motivation of denialists:

A huge fount of opposition to the emerging science seems driven by ideology as much as, or more than, money … After the US won the cold war, environmentalism became the new communism. It would take a better psychologist, or sociologist, than I to explain why.

So why does this matter? Why should we care about the psychology of denialism? A lot of reasons. Here are three:

  • The culture war cuts both ways. Certainly some (although not all or even most) environmentalists indulge an unhealthy tendency to view corporations as the cause of all environmental problems, rather than as partners in the solution. Everyone claims that climate change isn’t a left-right issue, but the rhetoric can be unintentionally revealing. At least once a week I read that oil companies and utilities “caused global warming,” a formulation that neatly absolves you, me, and the rest of the planet of any responsibility for our energy use.
  • Responding to cultural anxieties with scientific arguments is a recipe for battling to a draw. There are huge untapped coalitions out there — evangelical Christians, hunters, farmers, etc. — who could be active partners in the political battle over global warming. Money does have a very real influence on the Senate floor. The only way to overcome that influence is with an engaged and united citizenship.
  • Global warming isn’t the last such battle. As many have noted, we’re moving from an era in which environmentalism dealt mainly with questions of protecting the natural world from mankind’s influence to one in which environmentalism addresses issues of sustainable resource usage in a planet that supports 9 billion people. Global warming might be the big issue, but there are plenty of smaller issues — water, the oceans, biodiversity, forests, etc. — that will soon rise to the fore. I’d like to think we’ll learn something from this go-round.