Conservative Conservation

While the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, it has become an ideological matter. In the case of conservatives, climate change denial has become something of a stock position. In the case of liberals, belief in human-caused climate change is a standard position.  Because of the way ideological commitments influence thought, those who are committed to climate change denial tend to become immune to evidence or reasons offered against their view. In fact, they tend to double-down in the face of evidence—which is a standard defense people use to protect their ideological identity. This is not to say that all conservatives deny climate change; many accept it is occurring. However, conservatives who accept the reality of climate change tend to deny that it is caused by humans.

This spectrum of beliefs does tend to match the shifting position on climate change held by influential conservatives such as Charles Koch. The initial position was a denial of climate change. This shifted to the acceptance of climate change, but a rejection of the claim that it is caused by humans. The next shift was to accept that climate change is caused by humans, but that it is either not as significant as the scientists claim or that it is not possible to solve the problem. One obvious concern about this slow shift is that it facilitates the delay of action in response to the perils of climate change. If the delay continues long enough, there really will be nothing that can be done about climate change.

Since many conservatives are moving towards accepting human caused climate change, one interesting problem is how to convince them to accept the science and to support effective actions to offset the change. As I teach the students in my Critical Inquiry class, using logic and evidence to try to persuade people tends to be a poor option. Fallacies and rhetoric are vastly more effective in convincing people. As such, the best practical approach to winning over conservatives is not by focusing on the science and trying to advance rational arguments. Instead, the focus should be on finding the right rhetorical tools to win people over.

This does raise a moral concern about whether it is acceptable to use such tactics to get people to believe in climate change and to persuade them to act. One way to justify this approach is on utilitarian grounds: preventing the harms of climate change morally outweighs the moral concerns about using rhetoric rather than reason to convince people. Another way to justify this approach is to note that the goals are not to get people to accept an untruth and to do something morally questionable Quite the contrast, the goal is to get people to accept scientifically established facts and to act in defense of the wellbeing of humans in particular and the ecosystem in general.  As such, using rhetoric when reason fails seems warranted in this case. The question is then what sort of rhetoric would work best.

Interestingly, many conservative talking points can be deployed to support acting against climate change. For example, many American conservatives favor energy independence and keeping jobs in America. Developing sustainable energy within the United States, such as wind and solar power, would help with both. After all, while oil can be shipped from Saudi Arabia, shipping solar power is not a viable option (at least not until massive and efficient batteries become economically viable). The trick is, of course, to use rhetorical camouflage to hid that the purpose is to address climate change and environmental issues. As another example, many American conservatives tend to be pro-life—this can be used as a rhetorical angle to argue against pollution that harms fetuses. Of course, this is not likely to be a very effective approach if the main reasons someone is anti-abortion are not based in concern about human life and well-being. As a final example, clean water is valuable resource for business because industry needs clean water and, of course, human do as well. Thus, environmental protection of water can be sold with the rhetorical cover of being pro-business rather than pro-environment.

Thanks to a German study, there is evidence that one effective way to persuade conservatives to be concerned about climate change is to appeal to the fact that conservatives value preserving the past. This study showed that conservatives were influenced significantly more by appeals to restoring the earth to the way it was than by appeals to preventing future environmental harms. That is, conservatives were more swayed by appeals to conservation than by appeals to worries about future harms. As such, those wishing to gain conservative support for combating climate change should focus not on preventing the harms that will arise, but on making the earth great again. Many conservatives enjoy hunting, fishing and the outdoors and no doubt the older ones remember (or think they remember) how things were better when they were young. As examples, I’ve heard people talk about how much better the hunting used to be and how the fish were so much bigger, back in the good old days. This provides an excellent narrative for getting conservatives on board with addressing climate change and environmental issues. After all, presenting environmental protection as part of being a hunter and getting back to the memorable hunts of old is far more appealing than an appeal to hippie style tree-hugging.

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  1. It is very hard to discuss the issue of climate change, because the language used has become so distorted and loaded that we need a 20-page agreement of definitions before we can begin.

    With that in mind, please define your terms.

    “Climate change” is variously defined, from the scientifically accurate “The average temperature and precipitation patterns over a 30-year period change. They always have; they always will” to the political extremist “We must suspend democracy, declare a global dictatorship of the climatariat, and dismantle modern civilisation”. A common tactic of the alarmist side in these discussions is to abuse this unclarity to gain a rhetorical advantage and claim that their opponents are being inconsistent or changing their position instead of just responding to different meanings.

    Similarly, “human-caused climate change” is, at best, misleading. It implies that there would be no change in climate if humans did not cause it. This is untrue. The climate has always changed, and always will. “Human influence on climate” would be honest, but politically motivated people not concerned with honesty favour the stronger but unsupported phrase.

    James Hansen is arguably the most important scientific figure on the alarmist side of the issue. However, Oreskes accused him of a new form of denial because he did not support her preferred policy options – which have nothing to do with scientific evidence or speculation. This is one example of how “denier” and “denial” have become meaningless terms of abuse in the political alarmist rhetoric.

    These choices of language may be useful indicators of whether a writer is attempting to discuss the subject in good faith, but are not otherwise informative.

    Remembering Sir Humphrey’s wise observation that “Almost anything can be attacked as a loss of amenity, and almost anything can be defended as not a significant loss of amenity” let me try an exercise:

    While the scientific evidence against catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) is overwhelming, it has become an ideological matter. In the case of liberals, threats of CAGW have become an indispensible platform to demand more government overreach. In the case of conservatives, doubts about climate sensitivity are a standard position. Because of the way ideological commitments influence thought, those who are committed to climate change alarmism tend to become immune to evidence or reasons offered against their view. In fact, they tend to double-down in the face of evidence—which is a standard defense people use to protect their ideological identity. This is not to say that all liberals deny the lack of evidence for CAGW; many accept it is vanishingly unlikely. However, liberals who accept the reality of climate change tend to emphasise that there is still a risk to the entire planet, however small, from the anthropogenic component.

    Both the alarmist and dismissive sides, however, can agree on energy conservation, energy security, environmental protection, and adaptation to the climatic changes that will inevitably happen, as they always have, and always will. Working together on these bases does not require any moral concern about tactics.

  2. Dennis Sceviour

    Mike LaBossiere wrote “…using rhetoric when reason fails seems warranted…the focus should be on finding the right rhetorical tools to win people over.”

    Further rhetoric is useless while there is so much disagreement. The expected results of International environmental agreements like the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon emissions, and of what good/bad they do, is probably mis-guided. It must be obvious by now that the agreements have been useless in preventing global warming. Governments are using the environmental rhetoric for political attacks. Business and industries are selected like war targets for destruction while political friendlies go unscathed.

    People seem to forget that the planet earth has already undergone several dramatic cycles known as “ice ages” with far more temperature change than currently recorded. For the philosophical community, do not try to stop the global changes in temperature – adapt to the temperature change.

  3. Dennis,you are mighty right.I wish more people think that way

  4. True.There was a study about trying to convince anti-vaccination people about the truth using various means such as rhetoric and argumentation and everything failed. But, there are people who deny climate change but do not consider it part of their core identity–these people can, perhaps, be influenced.

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