grumpy old man

He won't be around forever.

A great many people believe that one of the primary barriers to action on climate change is the existence of a cadre of “climate deniers” — people who refuse to accept the now-overwhelming scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change. There is a great deal of tortured introspection among people in my circles about how to reach the deniers and bring them around to reality. (Seriously. You should see some of the email threads.)

Most climate hawks have finally moved past the “deficit model,” the notion that the solution to climate skepticism is to pour more facts on the pile or repeat the science more slowly and loudly, like an American tourist overseas. But the implicit assumption that the road to climate progress runs through the hearts and minds of the doubtful remains intact.

Over time, I have come to disagree. I don’t think the climate deniers will ever change their minds. What will happen is that they will, to put it bluntly, die off. We might wish it otherwise, but I fear that change on climate — real change, non-linear change — will not happen until the generational cohort in which climate denialism is concentrated begins passing into the sweet beyond.

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There’s a polite term for this process: “cohort replacement.” This nice introductory post defines it as “the replacement of old guards of organizational members and leaders with newer cohorts who have different beliefs, opinions, and values.” It’s a strangely underappreciated mechanism of social change, but if you ask me, it gets the lion’s share of the credit for most substantial social shifts over the last century. People rarely change their minds, especially about matters core to ideology and identity. But they do die!

I haven’t begun to get into the academic literature (I swear this won’t be a multi-part series!), but this study attributes about half the growth in support for same-sex marriage to cohort replacement. Ruy Teixeira has done done interesting work [PDF] on the implications of cohort replacement in politics. He wrote in 2008:

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The voting inclinations of the Millennials, hugely important in this election, could become even more so over time. If Millennials remain oriented as they are and maintain the generational consistency they have shown so far, the simple process of cohort replacement—more Millennials moving into the electorate and taking the place of older voters—will increase the Democrats’ margin over the GOP by an additional two and a half percentage points in 2012 and then by another two and a half points in 2016. That’s quite a shift.

And that shift will definitely be toward the Democrats and the relatively progressive politics they represent, not just toward Obama. In 2008, the 66-32 margin for Obama among 18-29 year olds was not far off the 63-34 margin for House Democrats among this age group. Even more important, party identification among 18-29 year olds, according to data released by the Pew Research Center right before the election, has been running 29 points pro-Democratic (61-32), an absolutely stunning figure. Party identification is the single strongest predictor of how people vote and tends to stick with individuals once they form an attachment early in their political lives. It appears that the Democrats in particular and progressive politics in general will be reaping the benefits of Millennials’ strong political leanings for many years to come.

“Progressive politics in general” … including climate politics.

Let’s remember what is too rarely discussed in polite company: Climate denial is largely concentrated among conservative white men. And not just conservative white men, but old conservative white men, otherwise known as the GOP base. The average age of a Fox News viewer is 65. A 2008 survey found that Rush Limbaugh’s audience is 72 percent male, 80 percent conservative, and an average age of 67.

Climate denial is not some isolated quirk of this cohort; it is part of something much deeper. Older white men are a privileged group. They saw their fathers occupy a position of unquestioned normative dominance. And yet history is passing them by; America is becoming more diverse, more urban, and more socially liberal. White men are in the process of losing their position of privilege. Their resentment and fury are intense and, partially as a result, their epistemic standards are becoming increasingly insular and tribal. Limbaugh explained the worldview like this:

We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. …

The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.

If you reject government, academia, science, and media as sources of information, you are left to believe any old sh*t that gives you a squirt of dopamine. You’re left without exogenous epistemological standards of any kind; you can believe whatever feels right. In short, you have achieved perfect epistemic closure.

This is a cohort that has convinced itself that bike paths are a U.N. plot. And I don’t mean “bike paths are a U.N. plot” in some sort of satirical, poetic-license sort of way. They really believe bike paths are a U.N. plot. They’ve convinced themselves that Obama is a Kenyan socialist with no birth certificate who apologizes for America and wants to fundamentally transform it into Europe, where they loll about all day on welfare, having homosexual sex while the Muslims take over. They believe in death panels and reeducation camps and giant North American mega-highways and creeping Sharia.

Relative to that backdrop, believing that climate change is a scam cooked up by scientists to get grant money and/or by liberals to create global government — a scam that has fooled every major scientific institution and most of the world’s politicians — hell, that’s easy.

The chances of anyone, no matter how adept or empathetic a communicator, penetrating that thicket of resentment, martyrdom, and fantasy and extracting climate sanity just strike me as … slim. This is a demographic death rattle. It just has to play out.

Meanwhile, pretty much every poll and survey shows that if you screen out the opinions of those above 60, the conversation about climate and energy is, well, practically European. Kids these days, despite their repeated efforts to trespass on my lawn, get it. And while it may be true that people get temperamentally more conservative as they age (though I sort of doubt this too), one thing they never do is adopt their parents’ particular irrationalities. (Don’t see a lot of people adopting their parents’ opposition to interracial marriage, for example.)

What’s the upshot of all this? It seems to me the implication is clear: It would be wise to divert a little time and attention away from the quixotic effort to change denier minds and toward the task of building the political coalition necessary to contain the damage this cohort does on its way out.

It is true, as I and many others have argued repeatedly, that we don’t have any time to spare on climate change. Nobody should sit around waiting for geezers to croak; we need to do everything we can as soon as we can. Nonetheless, social change is extraordinarily difficult to schedule or engineer. It will take time for younger, more climate-enlightened folks to assume positions of influence and power. Anything that accelerates that process (like, say, abolishing the U.S. Senate) is to the good. It will be a subtle process, largely under the radar … until it isn’t. And things change. Quickly.

So forget arguing, arguing, arguing with a tribe unmoored from reality. Start organizing, organizing, organizing the cohorts that are amenable to reality. Prepare them for when it’s their turn to take over. Time will do the rest.