Climate Change Is Stuck in the Culture War

Tea Partyers are smart and savvy. So why the aversion to climate-change science?
The Founding Fathers didn't care about carbon dioxide, so why should we? Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman criticized Republican leaders this week for being cowed by the Tea Party into disavowing climate change. What's more interesting, and more pressing for the rest of us, is the question he didn't answer: Why are Tea Party supporters, who still hold sway over the Republican Party, so insistent that climate change is a hoax?

The answer isn't as obvious as it might seem. As Harvard University's Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson detailed in their 2012 book, "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," most members of the movement are smart and engaged, with "relatively high levels of education and overall savvy about the political process." These aren't foolish people.

That's what makes the ardency of Tea Partiers' views on climate so striking. According to polling last year by the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of independents said human activity is making the planet warmer. For Republicans, the figure was 24 percent. For Tea Party supporters, it was 9 percent; 70 percent rejected the very premise that the earth is getting hotter.

Outside of religious belief in creationism, it's hard to think of another area where a position that's directly refuted by science remains so widely held. What explains why an intelligent group of people would reject a scientific consensus?

I put that question to Williamson, who said part of the answer, as you might expect, is business groups in the petro-chemical industry with a financial interest in preventing environmental regulations. Those groups have an incentive to challenge the science of climate change, and the influence to transmit that view through conservative media.

But that's not all of it; simply blaming Fox News and talk radio is a lazy explanation for anything, climate denial included. Williamson attributed the receptiveness of Tea Party supporters to two widespread views: First, the coastal elite looks down on people in Middle America; second, the government wants to exert ever-more control, and will use any pretext to do it.

"There's a general perception that the government wants to expand its power," Williamson told me. "That discussion felt sincere to me."

That sincere fear, Williamson said, has convinced Tea Party supporters that the coastal elites (a group that includes scientists) is manufacturing evidence around climate change. The aim, in their view, is to undo the American way of life -- big cars, big homes, suburban sprawl -- and make the heartland look more like the coasts.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider the concerns Williamson recounted hearing repeatedly: That the United Nations was plotting a global conspiracy or that people would be "rounded up and put into camps." She recalled a Tea Party meeting in Reading, Massachusetts, where people worried the government was trying to take control of their thermostats and talked about using hair dryers to fool government monitors.

That worldview is what makes Tea Party supporters so receptive to the message from conservative media that the science of climate change is bogus, Williamson said. "That constant influx of very wrong information is very toxic."

The takeaway is that releasing yet more reports showing climate change is real won't change Tea Partiers' minds. The better strategy may be waiting for the movement's hold over Republicans to loosen, as a Gallup poll this week showed is already happening:

But even as the Tea Party fades, conservative think-tanks and media outlets will continue to peddle their myths about climate change. The question is whether Republicans take up the challenge Huntsman described, to move the party "to a place where science drives our thinking and actions." They've got a long way to go.

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