As a climate scientist, I often hear it bemoaned that the public discussion of human-caused global warming is so politically polarized (Pew Research, 2019). The argument goes that global warming is simply a matter of pure science and thus there should be no divisions of opinion along political lines. Since it tends to be the political Right that opposes policies designed to address global warming, the reason for the political division is often placed solely on the ideological stubbornness of the Right.
This is a common theme in research on political divides regarding scientific questions. These divides are often studied from the perspective of researchers on the Left who, rather self-servingly, frame the research question as something like “Our side came to it’s conclusions from pure reason, so what exactly makes the people who disagree with us so biased and ideologically motivated?” I would put works like The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — and Reality in this category.
Works like The Republican Brain correctly point out that those most dismissive of global warming tend to be on the Right, but they incorrectly assume that the Left’s position is therefore informed by dispassionate logic. If the Left was motivated by pure reason then the Left would not be just as likely as the Right to deny science on the safety of vaccines and genetically modified foods. Additionally, as Mooney has argued elsewhere, the Left is more eager than the Right to deny mainstream science when it doesn’t support a blank-slate view of human nature. This suggests that fidelity to science and logic are not what motivates the Left’s concern about global warming.
Rather than thinking of the political divide on global warming as being the result of logic vs. dogma, a much better explanation is that people tend to accept conclusions, be they scientific or otherwise, that support themes, ideologies, and narratives that are a preexisting component of their worldview (e.g., Washburn and Skitka, 2017). It just so happens that the themes, ideologies, and narratives associated with human-caused global warming and its proposed solutions align well with archetypal worldviews of the Left and create great tension with archetypal worldviews of the Right.
The definitional distinction between the political Right and the political Left originates from the French Revolution and is most fundamentally about the desirability and perceived validity of social hierarchies. Definitionally, those on the Right see hierarchies as natural, meritocratic and justified while those on the Left see hierarchies more as a product of luck and exploitation. A secondary distinction, at least contemporarily in the West, is that those on the Right tend to emphasize individualism at the expense of collectivism and those on the Left prefer the reverse.
There are several aspects of the contemporary human-caused global warming narrative that align well with an anti-hierarchy, collectivist worldview. This makes the issue gratifying to the sensibilities of the Left and offending to the sensibilities of the Right.
The most fundamental of these themes is the degree to which humanity itself can be placed at the top of the hierarchy of life on the planet. Those on the Right would be more likely to articulate that it is justified to privilege the interests of humanity over the interests of other species or the “interests” of the planet as a whole (to the degree that there is such a thing). On the other hand, those on the Left would be more likely to emphasize across-species egalitarianism and advocate for reduced impact on the environment, even if it is against the interest of humans.
Within humanity, there are also at least two levels for which narratives about hierarchies influence thinking on global warming. One is the issue of developed vs. developing countries. The blame for global warming falls disproportionately on developed countries (in terms of historical greenhouse gas emissions) and thus proposed solutions often call on developed countries to bear the brunt of the cost of reducing emissions going forward. (Additionally, it is argued that developed countries have the luxury of being able to afford the associated increases in the cost of energy.) Overall, the solutions proposed for global warming imply that wealthy countries owe a debt to the rest of humanity that should come due sooner rather than later.
Those on the Right are more likely to see the wealth of developed countries as being rightfully earned through their own industriousness while those on the Left are more likely to view the disproportionate wealth of different countries as being fundamentally unjust and likely originating from exploitation. Thus, the story that wealthy countries are to blame for the global warming problem and that the solution is to penalize wealthy countries and subsidize poor countries is one that aligns well with preexisting narratives on the Left but not those on the Right. An accentuating factor is the tendency of the Right to be more in favor of national autonomy and thus opposed to global governance and especially international redistribution.
The third level for which hierarchy narratives couple with political divides on global warming relates to the wealth of corporations and individuals. On the Right, the story of oil and gas companies (as well as electric utilities that utilize fossil fuels) is one of innovation and wealth creation: The smartest and most deserving people and organizations found the most efficient ways to transform idle fossil fuel resources into the power that runs society and greatly enhances human wellbeing. Under such a narrative, it is fundamentally unjust to point a finger of blame at those entities (both corporations and individuals) that have done so much for human progress. The counter-narrative from the Left is that greedy corporations and individuals exploited natural resources for their own gain at the expense of the planet and the general public. Under this narrative, policies that blame and punish those in the fossil fuel industry are seen as bringing about a cosmic justice that is necessary for them to atone for their sins.
The other major overlapping theme that defines the divide between the Left and the Right on global warming is the degree to which collectivism is emphasized compared to individualism. Global warming is fundamentally a tragedy of the commons problem in which logical agents act in such a way that ends up being in the worst interest for everyone in the long term. These types of ‘collective-action problems’ almost necessarily call for top-down government intervention and thus they are inevitably associated with collectivism at the expense of individualism. Also, global warming’s long term nature calls for the embracement of collectivism across generations. Again, this natural alignment of the global warming problem with collectivist themes makes the issue much more palatable for the Left than for the Right.
In addition to these fundamental ideological issues, there are a number of more circumstantial characteristics that’s I believe have contributed to polarization regarding global warming.
One is that, in the U.S. at least, Al Gore was the primary actor that brought global warming into the national consciousness. If one wanted the issue to be “non-political” one couldn’t have conceived of a worse person than a former vice president and presidential nominee to be the main flagbearer for the movement.
Also, there is the longstanding claim by those on the Right that the global warming issue is just a Trojan Horse intended as an excuse to bring about all the desired policies of the Left. Books like This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate and plans like the Green New Deal do little to dispel this narrative. For example, the Green New Deal Resolution contained the following proposals:
“Providing all people of the United States with— (i) high-quality health care; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.”
“Guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.”
“Providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States, with a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities, so those communities may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization”.
These are objectives that clearly satisfy goals of the Left but it is much less clear how directly related these objectives are to global warming.
So, it should really not be particularly mysterious that opinions on global warming tend to divide along political lines. It is not because one side embraces pure reason while the other remains obstinately wedded to political dogmatism. It is simply that the problem and its proposed solutions align more comfortably with the dogma of one side than the other. That does not mean, however, that the Left is equally out-of-step with the science of global warming as the Right. It really is the case that the Right is more likely to deny the most well-established aspects of the science. But, if skeptical conservatives are to be convinced, the Left must learn to reframe the issue in a way that is more palatable to their worldview.