He doesn’t start with an apocalyptic description of future impacts when he talks to people about climate change, but, for some audiences, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Environmental Studies Calvin DeWitt does turn to the book of Revelation. “I’ll have a white-out pen in my pocket, and I’ll have them read Revelation chapter 11, verse 18. It’s a description of the sounding of the last trumpet, as you hear in Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ and the end verse says, ‘The time has come for destroying those who destroy the Earth,’” DeWitt told me. “And so, I say, ‘I have a white-out pen here for anyone who would like to correct their Bible.’”
DeWitt sees his faith as fundamental to, rather than in conflict with, his concern about climate change. He often finds common ground with fellow evangelicals by talking about stewardship of the wonderful natural world they have been given as a home. Put in these familiar terms, climate change seems more like an issue worthy of careful consideration.
Public opinion on climate change is, generally speaking, sharply divided by political and cultural identity. Research on this “cultural cognition” by Yale’s Dan Kahan has highlighted patterns of polarization around certain topics. We rely on our network of family, friends, and community for signals about what is true, and we feel pressure to harmonize our views with the views of that group. The more that political signals get tangled up with climate science, the harder it becomes for conservatives to do anything but reject it.
In one experiment run by Kahan and his colleagues, people were presented with statements about the HPV vaccine that were attributed to fictitious experts whose cultural identity could be gleaned from background information. People generally found statements from experts that belonged to their cultural group to be more persuasive—no surprise there. But in a similar experiment asking about climate change—a more deeply entrenched issue—people were not even persuaded by members of their own group if they argued for the opposing position. Instead, they simply viewed those experts as, well, not knowing what they were talking about.
Of course, this work doesn’t mean views are unanimous within each group. Only about 40 percent of the variance in public opinion on climate is explained by right-left ideology, Kahan said. There are still individual differences in how people answer survey questions about it, and some portion of people on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum buck the trend entirely.
What’s more, there is no immutable reason people can’t start to disentangle identity and climate science, freeing cultural groups to converge on new positions. The catch is that change has to come from within a given group, from voices that can be trusted to share a set of core values.
And no matter how much Internet comment threads or cable news has encouraged cynicism, there are passionate climate science supporters working in some of the places you’d least expect.
Former Republican South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis can tell you what that’s like. After 12 years representing a deep red district in Congress, Inglis lost to a primary challenger in the Tea Party wave of 2010. “It just appeared that I had crossed to the other tribe, that I had been treacherous as to my own tribe and a heretic as to the orthodoxy,” Inglis told me. He had broken with the party line of the time (“—which, of course, is now different,” he reminded me) on a few issues including the war in Iraq and the existence of human-caused climate change. In an election season centered on an ongoing financial recession, Inglis was painted as someone who cared more about future energy policy.
Before an unsuccessful Senate bid interrupted his political career in 1998, the Bob Inglis who served his first congressional term obeyed the orthodoxy on climate change. “I said it was nonsense,” Inglis explained. “I didn’t know anything about it except that Al Gore was for it.” But during the run-up to his (successful) 2004 congressional campaign, he began to take a closer look. It started with a comment from his 18-year-old son. “He told me, ‘Dad, I’ll vote for ya, but you’re gonna clean up your act on the environment,’” Inglis said.
When he returned to Congress, Inglis got a seat on the Science Committee that offered him a couple of opportunities that he says changed his mind about climate science. First, he visited researchers in Antarctica, where he learned about ongoing work to produce records of past climate from ice cores. The sudden rise of atmospheric CO2 after the Industrial Revolution jumped out at him. “The other thing I think that helped me was coming face to face with the scientists and realizing that these people aren’t out to get me. They’re pursuing science,” Inglis said.
Second, Inglis went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef with NOAA scientist Scott Heron. He says he immediately recognized in Heron someone who shared his faith. “He was worshipping God in what he was seeing, and what he was showing me. We’d go down, he’d point out something very excitedly, and he’d come to the surface and he’d just be so excited to tell me what it was,” Inglis recalled. Talking with Heron, Inglis was struck by the lifestyle changes he had made to reduce his ecological footprint. “He does all this in order to consciously love these people that come after us. So I got right inspired—I wanted to be like Scott,” he said.
Inglis thinks this sort of personal connection is necessary in order for many conservatives to accept the science of climate change at this point. “We learn from people we trust, and a lot of conservatives haven’t come in contact with someone they trust who can explain the essentials of climate science and good economic policy. What they’ve heard from is people they don’t trust.”
So what does conservative climate policy look like? Inglis thinks it’s pretty obvious once you realize that polluting industries are socializing the costs of their emissions in the form of things like human health impacts and climate change. (“We conservatives aren’t in favor of socializing anything,” he noted.) The solution is to make industries pay those costs and let the free market sort the rest out. It’s all about the conservative principles of accountability and distortion-free markets.
Inglis’ outreach group, RepublicEn, advocates for the same sort of plan that he proposed in a 2009 bill. In lieu of subsidies for any form of energy, there’s a carbon tax. But instead of handing that money to the government, it’s returned in the form of payroll tax credits (for example), ensuring that any resulting increase in energy costs is not borne disproportionately by lower-income households. “You can do things to avoid the carbon tax. In fact, that’s the whole point of it,” Inglis said. The more you save energy, the less tax you (indirectly) pay, even as the returning tax credit stays the same.
And instead of international agreements promising top-down energy policies, Inglis’ conservative plan includes a border-adjusted tax on imports from countries without carbon taxes of their own, encouraging other nations to follow suit.
An almost identical plan was publicized in February by a group of Republicans led by several former secretaries of state and treasury. (Mitt Romney even tweeted his approval.) The plan includes a carbon tax that would rise from an initial value of $40 per ton of emissions. Instead of that money coming back through payroll tax credits, this plan opts for straight-forward dividend checks. Imports would be taxed accordingly, while American exports would get carbon tax rebates.
While President Trump has rejected climate science and signed an executive order to gut many of the Obama administration’s key actions on climate, this group still hoped to appeal to the current administration. In a New York Times op-ed, they wrote, “If the Republican Party fails to exercise leadership on our climate challenge, they risk a return to heavy-handed regulation when Democrats return to power.”
Even if there’s little political traction to be found right now, Bob Inglis seems confident that it’s coming. “There are many climate realists in the closet in Congress, and they want to come out as energy optimists. But they confront a very difficult primary electorate that they are frightened of. It just takes an awful lot of courage, at this point” he said.
There are actually already signs that this is happening sooner rather than later. In early 2016, two congressmen—one Republican and one Democrat—formed a bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. By the end of the year, the group numbered 15. As of the end of March 2017, the caucus is at 34, and it’s still evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Many of those Republicans were among the 17 who signed onto a resolution earlier in March that acknowledged a human role in climate change and expressed support for “economically viable, and broadly supported private and public solutions.” A similar resolution last September had 11 Republican signatures.
Talking about the recent resolution, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) said, “This issue was regrettably politicized some 20 or so years ago, and we are in the process of taking some of the politics out, reducing the noise, and focusing on the challenge and on the potential solutions.”
More Info: arstechnica.com