If you care about the animals and nature, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is the climate science denier you love to hate. The senator, in turn, loves to go out of his way to make off-the-wall comments about the Environmental Protection Agency being a “Gestapo bureaucracy.” And he gets a kick out of putting up signs like “Honk if you love global warming!”
Inhofe is poised to take over the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works again, and while he may seem like a cartoonish yahoo, he’s no fool. So you have to wonder: Does he truly believe that climate change is a “hoax” and a “conspiracy”? Does he just make this stuff up for fun? Or is something else going on?
A fascinating new study suggests that something else is indeed going on. And it helps explain why so many Republican legislators are determined to deny the plain fact that we humans are creating catastrophic climate change and mass extinction.
(Oh, and before we go on: Liberal Democrats are not off the hook; it turns out they do the same thing, just in relation to different issues. Basically, we all do it.)
What the social psychologists who conducted the study learned is that most climate change deniers don’t fundamentally disagree with the factual evidence; their underlying problem is with the proposed solutions. And that’s what drives them to deny the evidence. As they see it, most of the proposed solutions involve more government regulation, and that’s what conservatives don’t like.
To test their theory, the psychologists set up a series of experiments. Troy Campbell, one of the authors and a Ph.D. student at Duke University, explains it:
“The goal was to test, in a scientifically controlled manner, the question ‘Does the desirability of a solution affect beliefs in the existence of the associated problem?’ In other words, does what we call ‘solution aversion’ exist? We found the answer is yes.”
For the climate change experiment, the psychologists set up two groups of people. First, each group listened to a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees this century. And then one group was shown a solution that emphasized a tax on carbon emissions or some other form of government regulation, while the other was shown a solution that emphasized free market approaches like green technology. The participants weren’t reacting to the scientific facts; they were reacting to how the proposed solution would clash with their personal political ideology.
In the group that was shown the government regulation solution, 78 percent of the people promptly said they didn’t agree with the science regarding climate change. But in the group that was shown the free-market solution, only 45 percent said they didn’t agree with the science.
In other words, the participants weren’t reacting to the scientific facts; they were reacting to how the proposed solution would clash with their personal political ideology. As Aaron Kay, another member of the study team, explains it:
“The more threatening a solution is to a person, the more likely that person is to deny the problem.”
So what does this tell us about folks like Sen. Inhofe? Consciously, no doubt, the senator fully believes that thousands of climate scientists are indeed involved in a giant conspiracy, as when he says:
“CO2 does not actually cause catastrophic disasters. Actually, it would be beneficial to our environment and the economy.”
Inhofe literally wrote the book on climate change denial: The Greatest Hoax – How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. So you could reasonably assume from books and remarks like this that the senator is more than a little crazy, paranoid or just plain dumb. But the new study suggests that if we probe a little further, we’ll find that what’s driving his remarks is not basically a disbelief in the science but by a political ideology that’s all about “freedom” – free markets, no government intervention, etc.
And sure enough, you can see this in another of Inhofe’s statements:
“Alarmists are attempting to enact an agenda of energy suppression that is inconsistent with American values of freedom, prosperity, and environmental progress.”
Inhofe’s real concern is that by addressing the issue of climate change, he’ll have to go against his basic right-wing values. And the facts are never a match for an underlying belief system.
Is this kind of thinking unique to Republicans? No. In another of the team’s experiments, Democrats and liberals showed themselves to be just as good at denying reality when facts threaten to clash with their ideological beliefs. In this case, the topic was not climate change but violent crime. When we’re faced with a societal problem whose solution conflicts with our deep-down beliefs and ideologies, we simply tend to deny that the problem exists at all.
First, the two groups in the study were read a statement to do with the prevalence of violent home break-ins. One group was then shown a proposed solution that called for looser gun-control laws, while the other was shown a solution that didn’t. Sure enough, the liberal participants who were reminded that more guns in the home might help protect people tended to deny that there were so many violent home break-ins in the first place – and therefore that a solution would be required. As the study explains:
Those holding a more liberal ideology – i.e. support for gun control – also show skepticism motivated by solution aversion. (For the percentages and other details, you need a subscription to the study.)
In other words, when any of us are faced with a societal problem whose solution conflicts with our deep-down beliefs and ideologies, we simply tend to deny that the problem exists at all. As Campbell puts it:
“Logically, the proposed solution to a problem, such as an increase in government regulation or an extension of the free market, should not influence one’s belief in the problem. However, we find it does. The cure can be more immediately threatening than the problem.”
Where does all this leave us in relation to dealing with climate change deniers? While it certainly doesn’t let them off the hook, it’s always good to understand what’s driving this madness.
I mean you’d think that Sen. Inhofe would at least want to bear in mind that his home state of Oklahoma was devastated by the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s that drove millions of people from their homes and farms. And that he’d be mindful of the fact that Oklahoma is in the early stages of yet another drought, due to the drying up of the High Plains Aquifer. And this time there will be no recovery.
But no. And one of the great ironies is that people like Inhofe and his colleagues, who are so vocal in championing the cause of “Freedom”, are so deeply enslaved to motivations of which they’re barely conscious.
We humans like to think of ourselves as rational beings. Studies like this help us see that we are, in fact, the most irrational of all animals!