Capitalism vs. the Climate

There is no joy in being right about something so terrifying. But for progressives, there is responsibility in it, because it means that our ideas — informed by indigenous teachings as well as by the failures of industrial state socialism — are more important than ever. It means that a green-left worldview, which rejects mere reformism and challenges the centrality of profit in our economy, offers humanity's best hope of overcoming these overlapping crises.

But imagine, for a moment, how all of this looks to a guy like Heartland president Bast, who studied economics at the University of Chicago and described his personal calling to me as "freeing people from the tyranny of other people." It looks like the end of the world. It's not, of course. But it is, for all intents and purposes, the end of hisworld. Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. There is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening the crisis.

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At the Heartland conference — where everyone from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Heritage Foundation has a table hawking books and pamphlets — these anxieties are close to the surface. Bast is forthcoming about the fact that Heartland's campaign against climate science grew out of fear about the policies that the science would require. "When we look at this issue, we say, This is a recipe for massive increase in government…. Before we take this step, let's take another look at the science. So conservative and libertarian groups, I think, stopped and said, Let's not simply accept this as an article of faith; let's actually do our own research." This is a crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts.

What Bast is describing — albeit inadvertently — is a phenomenon receiving a great deal of attention these days from a growing subset of social scientists trying to explain the dramatic shifts in belief about climate change. Researchers with Yale's Cultural Cognition Project have found that political/cultural worldview explains "individuals' beliefs about global warming more powerfully than any other individual characteristic."

Those with strong "egalitarian" and "communitarian" worldviews (marked by an inclination toward collective action and social justice, concern about inequality and suspicion of corporate power) overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change. On the other hand, those with strong "hierarchical" and "individualistic" worldviews (marked by opposition to government assistance for the poor and minorities, strong support for industry and a belief that we all get what we deserve) overwhelmingly reject the scientific consensus.

For example, among the segment of the US population that displays the strongest "hierarchical" views, only 11 percent rate climate change as a "high risk," compared with 69 percent of the segment displaying the strongest "egalitarian" views. Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes this tight correlation between "worldview" and acceptance of climate science to "cultural cognition." This refers to the process by which all of us — regardless of political leanings — filter new information in ways designed to protect our "preferred vision of the good society." As Kahan explained in Nature, "People find it disconcerting to believe that behaviour that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behaviour that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it." In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to watch your worldview get shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the height of the purges as it is of libertarian climate deniers today.

When powerful ideologies are challenged by hard evidence from the real world, they rarely die off completely. Rather, they become cultlike and marginal. A few true believers always remain to tell one another that the problem wasn't with the ideology; it was the weakness of leaders who did not apply the rules with sufficient rigor. We have these types on the Stalinist left, and they exist as well on the neo-Nazi right. By this point in history, free-market fundamentalists should be exiled to a similarly marginal status, left to fondle their copies of Free to Choose andAtlas Shrugged in obscurity. They are saved from this fate only because their ideas about minimal government, no matter how demonstrably at war with reality, remain so profitable to the world's billionaires that they are kept fed and clothed in think tanks by the likes of Charles and David Koch, and ExxonMobil.

This points to the limits of theories like "cultural cognition." The deniers are doing more than protecting their cultural worldview — they are protecting powerful interests that stand to gain from muddying the waters of the climate debate. The ties between the deniers and those interests are well known and well documented. Heartland has received more than $1 million from ExxonMobil together with foundations linked to the Koch brothers and Richard Mellon Scaife (possibly much more, but the think tank has stopped publishing its donors' names, claiming the information was distracting from the "merits of our positions").

And scientists who present at Heartland climate conferences are almost all so steeped in fossil fuel dollars that you can practically smell the fumes. To cite just two examples, the Cato Institute's Patrick Michaels, who gave the conference keynote, once told CNN that 40 percent of his consulting company's income comes from oil companies, and who knows how much of the rest comes from coal. A Greenpeace investigation into another one of the conference speakers, astrophysicist Willie Soon, found that since 2002, 100 percent of his new research grants had come from fossil fuel interests. And fossil fuel companies are not the only economic interests strongly motivated to undermine climate science. If solving this crisis requires the kinds of profound changes to the economic order that I have outlined, then every major corporation benefiting from loose regulation, free trade and low taxes has reason to fear.

With so much at stake, it should come as little surprise that climate deniers are, on the whole, those most invested in our highly unequal and dysfunctional economic status quo. One of the most interesting findings of the studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false. A much-discussed paper on this topic by Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap (memorably titled "Cool Dudes") found that confident conservative white men, as a group, were almost six times as likely to believe climate change "will never happen" than the rest of the adults surveyed. McCright and Dunlap offer a simple explanation for this discrepancy: "Conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males' strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change."

But deniers' relative economic and social privilege doesn't just give them more to lose from a new economic order; it gives them reason to be more sanguine about the risks of climate change in the first place. This occurred to me as I listened to yet another speaker at the Heartland conference display what can only be described as an utter absence of empathy for the victims of climate change. Larry Bell, whose bio describes him as a "space architect," drew plenty of laughs when he told the crowd that a little heat isn't so bad: "I moved to Houston intentionally!" (Houston was, at that time, in the midst of what would turn out to be the state's worst single-year drought on record.) Australian geologist Bob Carter offered that "the world actually does better from our human perspective in warmer times." And Patrick Michaels said people worried about climate change should do what the French did after a devastating 2003 heat wave killed 14,000 of their people: "they discovered Walmart and air-conditioning."

Tags: climate change, environment, global warming, heartland institute, heartland institute, intergovernmental panel on climate change, ipcc, naomi klein

    • Naomi Klein
    • Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the international bestsellers, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and No Logo. Her regular columns for The Nation magazine and the Guardian newspaper are syndicated internation...

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