We recently undertook a survey of Australian politicians and probed their understanding of climate change. Perhaps not surprisingly, the results indicated strong differences between parties in politicians understanding and source of advice on climate change. Similar patterns appear to be present on the political landscape of the United States. Here, Ross Douthat discusses recent opinions of commentators Brownstein and McKibbin over the rise of scepticism/denialism in the Republican Party.
Ron Brownstein and Bill McKibben both have pieces up lamenting the ascendancy of climate change skepticism in the Republican Party. While McKibben ponders the intellectual roots of this phenomenon (a subject I touched on, as he notes, in a column earlier this year), Brownstein points out that the G.O.P. is an outlier among the developed world’s right-of-center parties:
Indeed, it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here. Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says that although other parties may contain pockets of climate skepticism, there is “no party-wide view like this anywhere in the world that I am aware of.”
What’s interesting, though, is that if you look at public opinion on climate change, the U.S. isn’t actually that much of an outlier among the wealthier Western nations. In a 2007-2008 Gallup survey on global views of climate change, for instance, just 49 percent of American told pollsters that human beings are responsible for global warming. But the same figure for Britain (where Rush Limbaugh has relatively few listeners, I believe) was 48 percent, and belief in human-caused climate change was only slightly higher across northern Europe: 52 percent in the Czech Republic, 59 percent in Germany, 49 percent in Denmark, 51 percent in Austria, just 44 percent in the Netherlands, with highs of 63 percent in France and 64 percent in Sweden. (Doubts about anthropogenic global warming are considerably rarer, the study found, in southern Europe, Latin America and the wealthier countries of Asia.) There’s a reasonably large Western European constituency, in other words, for some sort of climate change skepticism. (And probably a growing one: In Britain, at least, as in the United States, the economic slump has dampened public enthusiasm for anti-emissions regulation.) But the politicians haven’t been responding. Instead, Europe’s political class, left and right alike, has worked to marginalize a position that it considers intellectually disreputable, even as the American G.O.P. has exploited that same position to win votes. The debate over climate change isn’t unusual in this regard. On issues ranging from the death penalty to (at least until recently) immigration, America’s major political parties generally tend to be more responsive to public opinion, and less constrained by elite sentiment, than their counterparts in Europe. Overall, I much prefer the American approach, populist excesses and all. (It helps in this case, of course, that I’m deeply skeptical about the efficacy of climate change legislation anyway.) But there’s no denying that its left the G.O.P. on the wrong side — and increasingly so — of a pretty sturdy scientific consensus.
I’ve long suspected the knee-jerk reaction from the political right early on was to assume wild exaggeration from the loudest political voices calling for action – the green/left – and make this about opposing unrealistic environmental regulation. Having sold this line to their voter support base they face serious credibility issues themselves with any attempt at abandoning that approach and treating the issue as serious. Add to that a general lack – within their general political preference for low tax, low regulation on business – of policy options suited to effectively dealing with it and they’ve found themselves tied to a position that’s untenable in the long term. Yet it has strong attraction amongst business interests that especially prefer a lack of taxes and regulation on the issue as well as amongst a voter base that bought the story that it was a green/left beat-up. It must pose a deep dilemma for politicians and political parties on the right – one potentially able to result in a deep division and split – so much so that avoiding being well informed probably looks like good short term politics.
I would note that having strong acceptance of the problem has not led to effective policy from Australia’s ALP, rather it has led to a lot of the right sounding noises whilst there remains a deep reluctance to mess with an economy – and growing government revenue – increasingly buoyed by fossil fuel extraction and export.