Politics and ideology stoke passions in climate debate.

In 2010, Yale University’s Dan Kahan published an essay in Nature, explaining why cultural values shaped scientific debates.

“A growing body of work has suggested that ordinary citizens react to scientific evidence on societal risks in much the same way,” Kahan wrote. “People endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments.”


What results, Kahan said, is a clash of worldviews. For example, he wrote, “The same groups who disagree on ‘cultural issues’ — abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer — also disagree on whether climate change is real and on whether underground disposal of nuclear waste is safe.”

Many who identify themselves as climate skeptics reject this notion that people are predisposed to view scientific information through a cultural lens. It’s all about the science, they insist. This was the sentiment recently expressed by most of the climate “skeptics” in their comments here and elsewhere. Numerous commenters took particular offense to Colorado State University climate scientist Scott Denning’s statement that: “Almost everyone that dismisses climate change as a problem does it for ideological or political reasons, not for scientific reasons.” (See related post.)

In fact, there is abundant evidence for Denning’s observation. One need only read what climate skeptics themselves say. For example, scroll through Bishop Hill, a popular U.K. climate skeptic blog, to the comments on a post about James Hansen’s advocacy for a global carbon tax. The idea that environmentalism — specifically the issue of climate change — is a stalking horse for a larger political agenda runs wild in the climate skeptic mind. In that Bishop Hill (Andrew Montford is the blogger) thread, this comment with a feverish conspiratorial bent reflects one strain of climate skeptic thinking:

From the very beginning the whole CAGW [catastrophic anthropogenic global warming] affair was a thin scientific covering to a political-religious movement to introduce a pan-national fascist control over all governments of the World. The whole global warming scare is a pretext for global government.

It’s important to note that this is no outlier view. James Delingpole, a U.K. conservative writer quite popular with climate skeptics, often disparages environmentalists as authoritarian “watermelons” — green on the outside and red on the inside. Several years ago, the Dutch climate scientist Bart Verheggen asked Jeff Condon, an American climate skeptic blogger, what he considered “socialist” about climate science. Condon’s reply: “Just the preferred and demanded solutions and the continued support of organizations with socialist tendencies, IPCC, UN, Copenhagen, etc.”

Lest you think these are isolated musings on blog sites, consider Naomi Klein’s much-discussed 2011 Nation magazine article. In it, she reports directly from the Heartland Institute’s annual conference:

Over the course of this two-day conference, I will learn that [President] Obama’s campaign promise to support locally owned biofuels refineries was really about “green communitarianism,” akin to the “Maoist” scheme to put “a pig iron furnace in everybody’s backyard” (the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels). That climate change is “a stalking horse for National Socialism” (former Republican senator and retired astronaut Harrison Schmitt). And that environmentalists are like Aztec priests, sacrificing countless people to appease the gods and change the weather (Marc Morano, editor of the denialists’ go-to website, ClimateDepot.com).

Most of all, however, I will hear versions of the opinion expressed by the county commissioner in the fourth row: that climate change is a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism. As conference speaker Larry Bell succinctly puts it in his new book Climate of Corruption, climate change “has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution.”

To be sure, there is no monolithic world that climate skeptics belong to; there are “shades of gray.” As science writer David Brin has written:

Not every person who expresses doubt or criticism toward some part of this complex issue [climate change] is openly wedded to the shrill anti-intellectualism of Fox News — nor do all of them nod in agreement with absurd exaggerations, e.g., that a winter snowstorm refutes any gradual warming of Earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, you are likely to know some individuals who claim not to be “global warming deniers” but rational, open-minded “AGW-skeptics.”

So it’s understandable that some science-based climate skeptics are peeved to find themselves lumped in with the Marc Morano/Heartland Institute/James Delingpole camp, but here’s the thing: those three are representative public voices of climate skepticism, just as James Hansen, Al Gore, and Bill McKibben are representative public voices of the climate-concerned community.

These are, in effect, the widely recognized captains of the two opposing teams. They are the ones that draw the battle lines, lead the charge, wage the war of words. (There are other high-profile figures that eagerly join the fray, of course.) And so many with an interest, or say, in this issue choose which side they want to be on and fall in behind the putative leaders. They do so based not on the science, asserts Yale’s Dan Kahan, but according to which side they identify with. In his Nature essay, Kahan put it this way: “Like fans at a sporting contest, people deal with evidence selectively to promote their emotional interest in their group. On issues ranging from climate change to gun control, from synthetic biology to counter-terrorism, they take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd.”

Even some conservative pundits, such as The Washington Post‘s Michael Gerson, have noted that in the United States, at least, climate change has “joined abortion and gay marriage as a culture war controversy,” and that the “scientific debate has been sucked into a broader national argument about the role of government.”

Gerson wrote in a column earlier this year that:

The resistance of many conservatives to arguments about climate disruption is magnified by class and religion. Tea Party types are predisposed to question self-important elites. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of secular science, which has traditionally been suspicious of religious influence. Among some groups, skepticism about global warming has become a symbol of social identity — the cultural equivalent of a gun rack or an ichthus.

But however interesting this sociology may be, it has nothing to do with the science at issue. Even if all environmentalists were socialists and secularists and insufferable and partisan to the core, it would not alter the reality of the Earth’s temperature.

What to do about that reality is the crux of the larger climate debate. That, and not science, is what the two “sides” are really fighting about. But if it’s incumbent on the climate-concerned camp to make its case for action, then that task surely would be made easier if it figured out a way to neutralize its opposition. To that end, here is one piece of advice from a smart commenter at the Economist:

If the Left, from the very beginning, had approached the topic from the point of, “We understand fully the Right’s concerns over economic freedom and the size and scope of government with this issue, but we believe that the threat of climate change is real, so we believe humanity needs to do something about it…” well then the Right would likely have been more open. But this has never been the case. To this day, the Left continue to spout the nonsense that the Right want to take away people’s clean air, clean water, wreck the environment, and so forth.

It’s sad because it undermines their own arguments. Climate change, while skepticism can be warranted, isn’t junk science either. Humanity is releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and this could create a sudden shift in the climate at some point. The concern is that, historically, when this has happened, it has had drastic effects on the biosphere when it happened, because the lifeforms couldn’t adapt to that kind of quick change. Think of it like this: imagine a MASSIVE fire is burning on Earth, one that is releasing billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. It would not be illogical to speculate that eventually, this fire could start to have an effect on the planet’s climate after a certain point. But the Left need to understand the Right’s concerns and arguments as well.

When those concerns and arguments are met head-on, perhaps then the battle won’t be so narrowly — and so distractedly — focused on climate science alone.

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.