Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 8 August 2023





Climate Is Now a Culture War Issue

Against a smoke-tinted sky, a dim sun shines through an American flag flapping on a pole.
Credit...Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters
Against a smoke-tinted sky, a dim sun shines through an American flag flapping on a pole.

Opinion Columnist

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Understanding climate denial used to seem easy: It was all about greed. Delve into the background of a researcher challenging the scientific consensus, a think tank trying to block climate action or a politician pronouncing climate change a hoax and you would almost always find major financial backing from the fossil fuel industry.

Those were simpler, more innocent times, and I miss them.

True, greed is still a major factor in anti-environmentalism. But climate denial has also become a front in the culture wars, with right-wingers rejecting the science in part because they dislike science in general and opposing action against emissions out of visceral opposition to anything liberals support.

And this cultural dimension of climate arguments has emerged at the worst possible moment — a moment when both the extreme danger from unchecked emissions and the path toward slashing those emissions are clearer than ever.

Some background: Scientists who began warning decades ago that the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere would have dangerous effects on the climate have been overwhelmingly vindicated.

Worldwide, July was the hottest month on record, with devastating heat waves in many parts of the globe. Extreme weather events are proliferating. Florida is essentially sitting in a hot bath, with ocean temperatures off some of its coast higher than body temperature.

At the same time, technological progress in renewable energy has made it possible to envisage major reductions in emissions at little or no cost in terms of economic growth and living standards.

Climate Forward  There’s an ongoing crisis — and tons of news. Our newsletter keeps you up to date. 

Back in 2009, when Democrats tried but failed to take significant climate action, their policy proposals consisted mainly of sticks — limits on emissions in the form of permits that businesses could buy and sell. In 2022, when the Biden administration finally succeeded in passing a major climate bill, it consisted almost entirely of carrots — tax credits and subsidies for green energy. Yet thanks to the revolution in renewable technology, energy experts believe that this all-gain-no-pain approach will have major effects in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But not if Republicans can help it. The Heritage Foundation is spearheading an effort called Project 2025 that will probably define the agenda if a Republican wins the White House next year. As The Times reports, it calls for “dismantling almost every clean energy program in the federal government and boosting the production of fossil fuels.”

What’s behind this destructive effort? Well, Project 2025 appears to have been largely devised by the usual suspects — fossil-fueled think tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute that have been crusading against climate science and climate action for many years.

But the political force of this drive, and the likelihood that there will be no significant dissent from within the G.O.P. if Republicans do take the White House, has a lot to do with the way science in general and climate science in particular have become a front in the culture war.

About attitudes toward science: As recently as the mid-2000s, Republicans and Democrats had similar levels of trust in the scientific community. Since then, however, Republican trust has plunged as Democratic trust has risen; there’s now a 30-point gap between the parties.

We saw the effect of this anti-science trend when Covid vaccines became available: Vaccination was free to the public, so there was no economic cost to individuals, yet getting vaccinated was widely perceived as something “experts” and liberal elites wanted you to do. As a result, Republicans disproportionately refused to get their shots and suffered substantially higher rates of excess deaths — deaths over and above those you would normally have expected — than Democrats.

Does anyone seriously doubt that similar attitudes are driving rank-and-file Republicans to oppose action on climate change? The other day my colleague David Brooks argued that many Republicans dispute the reality of climate change and push for fossil fuels as a way to “offend the elites.” He’s right. Look at the hysterical reaction to potential regulations on gas stoves, and while it’s clear that special interests were, um, fueling the fire, there was also a strong culture-war element: The elites want you to get an induction cooktop, but real men cook with gas.

The fact that the climate war is now part of the culture war worries me, a lot. Special interests can do a great deal of damage, but they can be bought off or counterbalanced with other special interests. Indeed, an important part of President Biden’s climate strategy is the idea that renewable energy investments, which have been soaring since his legislation passed, will give many businesses and communities a stake in continuing the green transition.

But such rational if self-interested considerations won’t do much to persuade people who believe that green energy is a conspiracy against the American way of life. So the culture war has become a major problem for climate action — a problem we really, really don’t need right now.


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