Do Environmentalists Feed The Fire of Climate Change Denial?

Michael Lewyn's picture

Despite the extreme weather events of the past year, most Americans are still not persuaded that climate change is primarily the result of human activity.  Why not? 

In large part, the problem is beyond environmentalists' control, for at least two reasons.  First, public concern over the troubled economy has crowded out public interest in more long-run problems (including, but not limited to, climate change).  Second, a large fraction of voters get their information from the right-wing media, which distinguishes itself from the competition by attacking President Obama.  So if President Obama supports doing something about climate change, Fox News and right-wing AM radio are tempted to deny that climate change even exists.

But after having been on numerous environmentalist mailing lists, listservs, etc.  I have come to believe that environmentalist rhetoric is sometimes unhelpful.  Just as Tea Party extremism makes Republicans look bad to swing voters, much of what I've read in the environmentalist media might be off-putting outside the environmentalist base.

On one extreme, environmentalists sometimes use overheated rhetoric (pun intended).  Environmentalist rhetoric about "saving the Earth" may fire up the already-persuaded, but may sound wacky to the unconvinced - and disconcerting to religious voters whose traditions tell them that God will ultimately supply a Messiah, or at least not wipe out life on Earth (Gen. 8:21).    Moreover, I don't think you need to tell people that all of humanity will be destroyed in order to give them reason to worry.   For example, climate change could cause a flood of natural disasters (pun intended) which wipes out large stretches of American coastline, eliminates a big chunk of our food supply, and brings the U.S. economy to its knees.  Such disasters are perfectly consistent with anyone's religious tradition, yet sufficiently harmful to be worth taking aggressive measures to avoid.

At the other extreme, environmentalists sometimes focus on trivia, going on the warpath against one consumer product or another - sometimes products as trivial as plastic straws, or as important as air conditioning.  These "Austerity Green" crusades do give the environmentalist base a way to feel useful, but aren't likely to materially affect climate change.  More importantly, Austerity Green tells  swing voters: environmentalism means making your life more difficult and uncomfortable, with no obvious payoff.    A reader subjected to such views may be converted, but may also deny the existence of any climate change problem at all in order to avoid feeling guilty about not following the Austerity Green agenda. (Of course, I'm assuming that the unconverted actually read this stuff- perhaps a fanciful assumption!)

By contrast, conservatism is successful precisely when its promises of austerity are vague (e.g. unspecified cuts in wasteful spending, which voters are likely to think will affect someone other than themselves).

But you may argue: doing something about climate change is likely to involve some policies that might make something more expensive to someone, whether it be subsidies to clean energy (some of which will inevitably turn out badly), regulations to limit pollution (which may increase energy prices in the short run) or carbon taxes.   And so perhaps even the best-sold environmental policies might be a hard sell in today's political climate.  Nevertheless I do wonder if environmentalist rhetoric makes these policies an even harder sell than necessary.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Human Caused Global Warming

Polls differ, but some do say that a majority of Americans now believe that global warming is caused by human activity. The percent who say it is human caused seems to be increasing rapidly.

"The Yale-George Mason analysis also said that for the first time since 2008, more than half of Americans (54%) believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, up eight points just since March."

I agree completely with what you say about "Austerity Green."

Charles Siegel

Framing the Discussion

I agree that the ways in which environmentalists frame the discussion about global warming are ineffective and counterproductive. But there is hope. For example, take a look at the work done by the FrameWorks Institute, which focuses on developing new approaches to explaining social issues to the public. Specifically look at their webpage on Climate Change and Oceans and check out the products and tools (links at bottom of page).

It's not that simple

Environmentalists have foreseen for quite a while what others are now becoming aware of only because disasters are happening. At least the environmental groups have organizations in place and expertise for people to plug into to advocate for change. I say join one of these groups and start advocating like hell to change the system to be about happiness and stability, not about growth and exploitation.

Politics is just the start

Sadly this isn't just about right wing radio and the GOP. This country has a deep deep culture of anti-intellectualism. Facts are irrelevant. Data is irrelevant. All that matters is how they feel about an issue.

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