Why Don't Conservatives Take Climate Change Seriously? A Theory

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What explains the skepticism of climate change that is so common among educated, elite American conservatives? Not the true believing young-earthers, but the ones who basically inhabit reality-based worlds, and enjoy fancy media jobs in Washington and New York?


It has been widely diagnosed that the primary driver of climate change denial (or, more annoying, the denialist meta-arguing about “the limits of science” or whatever that allow people like Bret Stephens to argue against taking action to address climate change while giving themselves rhetorical room to deny being deniers) among these conservatives is, as Jonathan Chait puts it, “not even skepticism but a trolling impulse.”

This is pretty obvious: Doing things like pulling out of the Paris climate agreement makes the libs mad, so it’s good.

I think there’s a bit more to it than that, though. Elite conservative climate change denial isn’t simply marked by dishonesty and trolling (though it obviously is infused with those things), it’s defined by their resolute refusal to take the subject seriously. Chris Hayes got me thinking along these lines last night:

I think the sort of conservatives we’re talking about here refuse to engage seriously with climate change because they can’t believe it.

Conservatives like Bret Stephens seem to believe that if climate change were actually catastrophic, we’d be doing something to prevent it, and so the fact that we are not means it can’t possibly be. They believe that liberals don’t believe their own rhetoric on it, because if it truly were an existential threat, we’d be treating it like one.


So they come to think of “worrying about climate change” as a fashionable Correct Opinion, one that liberals feel obligated to espouse but don’t actually, truly believe. This impression forms because these guys only ever interact with wealthy liberals in Manhattan and Washington D.C.. (Most elite conservative misconceptions about what liberals believe and think can actually be traced back to this fact. If you only ever interacted with very rich liberals—the sort of people who espouse racial equality but send their kids to all-white private schools—you might believe liberalism is intellectually bankrupt and self-contradictory too.) They don’t see these liberals living as if a potentially existential threat was inexorably growing more urgent, so... they must not truly believe it.

Glenn Reynolds, for one, has basically said exactly this: “I’ll believe it’s a crisis when they start acting like a crisis.”


It’s the attitude that explains dumb-ass tweets like this:


Where conservatives fuck it up is in not understanding exactly how rich liberals are failing. As is often the case, they see only individuals making personal choices and not the collective action problem. The individual consumer choices of rich Americans will make little difference to the large problem of halting emissions in time to mitigate the worst-case climate scenarios. Al Gore’s enormous personal carbon footprint is a symptom of the problem, not the problem. Instead, what rich people—corporate executives especially—ought to be doing is exercising their enormous political influence to Do Something. They could, for example, stop funding the political party that is actively hostile to efforts to address carbon emissions.

Conservatives like Bret Stephens have correctly diagnosed that liberals aren’t taking climate change seriously. The proof of that is not Al Gore’s large house, though—it’s that their newspapers keep hiring people like Bret Stephens and their businesses keep giving money to his political allies.

Politics editor, Splinter