September 8, 2015

Decoupling Climate Science Acceptance from Political Beliefs

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 6:30 pm

As readers of this blog are very aware, the radicalization of American politics is one of my personal pet issues.  Social scientists and other observers have studied it in greater detail by far than I have, and their findings bear out my own anecdotal observations.  Increasingly, self-identified conservatives and progressives do not only hold diametrical political opinions, but they also identify with diametrically opposite non-political positions and make opposite lifestyle choices because they believe that is what good conservatives/progressives ought to do.  The rural/conservative-urban/liberal association is only becoming stronger, for instance, and part of that is that there is increasing migration to communities for political reasons.  This particular phenomenon is, I think, creating myopia on both sides about how to deal with large-scale problems, because what works for one type of community might not do at all for another.  More on this later.

It goes deeper.  Rigid conservatives and rigid progressives enjoy different types of entertainment:  The progressives want to feel “global” and “multicultural” and so they partake of foreign art films; the conservatives want to feel “patriotic” and seek out military-themed movies; neither side wants to watch what the other side likes.  They make certain dietary choices based on what “their people” are “supposed” to eat.  They engage in different hobbies.  And they do it on purpose, for reasons of political identity, rather than because of natural preferences.  It’s “the personal is political” taken to the nth degree.  If that sounds like cliques and social interaction in junior high (“cool kids don’t like X; they like Y”), well, that’s because it pretty much is the same thing.  It’s incredibly toxic, and it has expanded to many other aspects of life.  What I’m going to discuss here in depth, however, are climate science acceptance/denial and opinions on climate change mitigation policies.

I’m an atmospheric scientist.  I have written on many occasions about how it feels like a personal attack for someone to deny that anthropogenic climate change is taking place, because in almost every instance now, the claim is not that something else is causing climate change, but that climatologists are engaging in mass data forgery.  Accusing a scientist of research fraud is character defamation of a very serious degree.  Those few (but loud) skeptical climatologists also like to beat the drum of “advocacy” every time one of their non-skeptical colleagues expresses a political opinion about what should be done.  This is a less overt, non-explicit insinuation of misconduct, because it is empirically irrelevant if a scientist holds a given opinion about their research as long as the methodology of that research is sound.

The skeptics’ shift in recent years from proposing alternate testable hypotheses (the sun’s causing it all, interactions of atmospheric-oceanic teleconnection patterns are doing it, etc.) to accusing 97% of climatologists of research fraud is, I think, yet another manifestation of ideological polarization.  No longer is it okay on the hard right to accept that the climate could be changing, even if one doesn’t accept that we are causing the greatest part of it.  And it is certainly not okay to accept that we are changing it.

Why is that?  I think that for many people, unfortunately, it’s just an emotional reaction to side with their “team” in any circumstances.  But for some, probably especially those who are the most articulate and influential on their side, I think there’s something else going on.  After all, if we accept that the climate is changing, then at a bare minimum that calls for community resilience measures.  If we accept that we are doing it, that calls for us to cut back on what we’re doing.  Hardening and mitigation call for the government to regulate private-sector activity.  The concepts are linked and can’t be taken apart.  Right?

Actually… wrong.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.

It is absolutely possible to believe that the climate is changing due to human activity and also to hold the political opinion that we shouldn’t regulate anything relating to that change.  “Freely choose to adapt or die” is a position I have seen at least one very politically conservative meteorologist advocate.  This is not my own position, of course, but it is one I can at least respect, because it accepts empirical scientific data.  This scientist correctly recognizes that he can hold his chosen political ideology without believing that his colleagues in climatology are engaged in mass scientific misconduct.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.  That does not just go for general policy prescriptions, or (in the above example) the political opinion regarding whether anything at all should be done as a matter of regulation.  It also goes for specific policy prescriptions.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on the purchase of animal products (food or otherwise).

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on home energy consumption.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive emissions penalties for cars.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating “smart fuel pumps” that read one’s odometer, check it against a database, and assess a tax based on miles traveled.

There is a reason I have mentioned those four policy ideas, by the way.  It is because I am an atmospheric scientist who accepts anthropogenic climate change and I am against every single one of them.  A couple of them I’m against in any circumstance, and the other two, I’m against as one-size-fits-all national policies.  I generally do not favor using the heavy hand of government on private individuals in this situation, for a variety of reasons.

First, it’s not politically pragmatic.  It is arguably counterproductive, in fact.  People respond much better to the carrot than to the stick, and I do support measures such as tax credits for making the choice to get a green car or to upgrade one’s home.

Second, it is large-scale industrial operations that have a greater effect on the global carbon dioxide balance, and private citizens do not often have much say-so in broad corporate policy.  Not even through their buying choices, at least when we are talking about the power sector or the automobile industry, which are almost impossible for new competitors to enter that are not already very well-funded (and even then face difficulties, such as the determination of some states to lock out Tesla Motors from selling to people because they do not use a dealership model, but sell directly to drivers).

Third, consumers often have limited choices, especially for big expenditures.  Not everyone can afford a new, highly efficient car.  Prior to the new standards requiring 35 mpg, not that many cars even were highly efficient, let alone affordable ones.  Not everyone can afford a home renovation to become greener.  Not everyone has access to public transportation or carpooling options, and not everyone can afford to move closer to work.

And finally, the fourth reason I’m against the broad application of this sort of regulation is that it is a one-size-fits-all approach that is utterly inappropriate in some situations.  For instance, on the subject of personal energy consumption, it is not even safe to forego heating or cooling in some regions during winter or summer.  A limited-AC-usage efficiency prescription that isn’t that onerous for San Francisco would be a major public safety hazard in Atlanta in the summer.  (Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the US.)  The same thing is true for car usage:  If a municipality wants to have strict emissions standards for privately owned vehicles, that is defensible when reliable public transportation is available in the area and perhaps they want to discourage driving when other options exist.  It is potentially quite onerous in areas where your options are generally to drive to work or not work at all.  And even in those cities where it is defensible, it makes sense to offer exemptions in cases where people cannot afford new vehicles or vehicle modifications.  We were able to implement mandatory health insurance coverage without imposing a harsh burden on people who can’t afford it, after all.  Even in large cities with good public transit, there are some situations when people need to use a car instead.  Public transit may take you to work, but it generally can’t take you everywhere you need to go unless you happen to live in a place like New York City.

Sustainability must be fine-tuned to localities, in fact, because areas will have different needs.  In fairness to right-wingers who complain that “liberals” always think in terms of how things are in “liberal cities” (San Francisco, Portland, New York, etc.), I’ll even grant that some of these suggestions, when considered for the entire country, do appear that way, since they work so poorly outside of such areas.  But this cuts both ways.  For instance, I will argue down anyone who is against any emissions testing at all in large cities.  I have been in East Coast cities where, even leaving aside carbon dioxide emissions, particle matter and ozone can create truly oppressive—and hazardous—health conditions.  I have felt my chest constricting on “code orange” ozone days.  I’ve coughed up blood on high particle matter days.  If your own experience is limited to medium-sized towns and suburban communities where this does not happen, then you too should remember that other types of environments have different needs, and your community’s situation shouldn’t be the blueprint for policies everywhere any more than the communities that your political adversaries often live in.

I know that it may be difficult for people accustomed to thinking in terms of “us versus them” politics to consider that “mixing it up” is even possible, but it is.  It is possible to accept climate change science without supporting the entire hard-left policy package… or even any of it.  It is possible to think that some things should be done without believing that they should all be done exactly the same way everywhere.  From my own admittedly biased perspective, I think it’s not just possible, but preferable to think that.  This us-versus-them, with-us-or-against-us, no-gray-area form of politicking benefits nobody, not even those who do it, except in the very cynical way of perpetuating their own existence by always having an “enemy” with whom common cause is impossible.  It certainly doesn’t achieve anything concrete for the issues themselves.

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