Will Climate Change Denial Inherit the Wind?

By Josh Rosenau

In 2012, 87 years after its first famous Monkey Law, Tennessee passed a law attacking evolution, labeling that foundation of modern biology “controversial” and purporting to grant public school teachers and students “academic freedom” to challenge it in class. Unlike 1925’s Butler Act, 2012’s Monkey Law broadened its scope beyond evolution, also sweeping in the similarly scientifically uncontroversial but socially contentious topic of climate change.

Since 2004, legislators in 15 states have filed about 50 bills based on the same model as Tennessee’s (along with dozens of unrelated bills attacking evolution or climate science). These bills originated as a new strategy to promote creationism, a successor to efforts to promote “intelligent design” creationism (a strategy which collapsed in the legal case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, PA). Intelligent design itself was merely a dandified version of the “creation science” movement that prevailed from the 1960s and peaked in the 1980s, and which largely retreaded the “Biblical creationism” that has been a feature of American society since the beginning of the 20th century (see Eugenie C. Scott’s Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction for further background on the evolution of the creationist movement).

The persistence of the creationist movement is a remarkable example of the power of social movements, and provides a valuable lesson for students of other anti-science movements. Michael Lienesch’s In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement examines the early days of this movement through the lens of 1925’s Scopes trial. Many of the tropes and frames that still define the social debate over evolution were established there. After the trial, antievolutionism shifted from being a minority view among fundamentalist theologians to become a defining creed of fundamentalism. Through William Jennings Bryan’s crusade for antievolution laws like the one John Scopes violated, and Bryan’s prosecution of Scopes, fundamentalism shifted from the urban elite to become a movement of the rural working class, and abandoned the scholarly engagement that initiated the movement. The antievolution campaigns also brought the nascent fundamentalist movement together with political benefactors, creating political alliances that can be traced through to the Moral Majority of the 1980s and the modern radical religious right.

The persistence and continuity of that movement, and its steadfast resistance to new scientific developments — the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1930s and ’40s, revolutions in molecular genetics spawned by Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA’s structure in the 1950s, the rise of molecular biology since the 1960s, and advances in evolutionary developmental biology and genomics since the 1990s — are a powerful reminder of the power cultural cognition and social context can play in people’s responses to science. Even though “what Americans appear to believe about human origins can be readily manipulated by how the question is asked,” public opinion is also remarkably stable. For the 30 years Gallup has been asking the same question about evolution, the public’s attitude has not shifted more than 4 points away from the long-term mean for any option.

Creationists have succeeded in part by successfully framing evolution not as a scientific topic, but as a weapon wielded in a societal conflict between (Protestant) religion and the amalgamated forces of science, secularism, atheism, and liberalism. This framing of the topic has taken hold far beyond the fundamentalist fringe. When Miss USA pageant contestants were asked in 2011 “should evolution be taught in school?” they overwhelmingly responded based on the assumption that there are two sides — evolution and religion — and that both belong in public schools. Few framed evolution as a scientific topic.

As Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer show in Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, no state has a majority of citizens who oppose the idea of teaching “both sides” of evolution. Small wonder, then, that when there are proposals to teach creationism, or just “the evidence against” evolution, for the sake of a supposed “balance,” the public is often receptive. That public school curricula have not yielded to the public’s ambivalence or hostility toward evolution is a testament to the steadfast agreement of the scientific community and teaching professionals, who recognize evolution as the only available scientific explanation for the diversity of life, and a vital foundation for biology lessons. (See Voices for Evolution for a collection of statements from scientific, educational, religious, and civil liberties organizations in favor of teaching evolution and against teaching creationism.) Yet this tension between public opinion and scientific consensus leaves teachers under intense pressure, and it is little wonder that six high school biology teachers in ten minimize or avoid coverage of evolution.

A similar dynamic may be forming around the science of climate change as well, and social movement theory will play a key role in understanding that battle — and perhaps in sparing climate science from being doomed, like evolution, to be used as a shibboleth for political factions.

The climate change denial movement has its organizational roots in the tobacco industry’s campaign to obscure the scientific evidence that its product causes cancer. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have shown how the major organizations and leaders of the climate denial movement were assembled through their work on tobacco-funded campaigns, bringing rhetoric and tactics with them from battles over tobacco to resistance against efforts aimed at acid rain, the ozone hole, and ultimately global warming. Historian Spencer Weart has chronicled how the opposition to climate change shifted from a scientific discourse in peer-reviewed venues to a pattern of denial. Weart writes:

the small group of scientists who opposed the consensus on warming proceeded in the manner of lawyers, considering nothing that would not bolster their case, and publishing mostly in pamphlets, books, and newspapers supported by conservative interests. At some point they were no longer skeptics — people who would try to see every side of a case — but deniers, that is, people whose only interest was in casting doubt upon what other scientists agreed was true.

He adds: “Deniers of the scientific consensus avoided normal scientific discourse and resorted to ad hominem attacks that cast doubt on the entire scientific community — while disrupting the lives of some researchers.”

The emergence of a self-sustaining climate change denial movement requires a deeper explanation, though. Deep pockets and corporate backing alone cannot create a social movement. Nor can financial motive alone explain how vicious the attacks on climate scientists have become. Rather, like creationism, climate change denial has spread and established itself in the political discourse by creating a perception of conflict. Instead of the religious conflict alleged by creationists, however, climate change deniers allege a conflict of economic and political ideologies. Historians and public opinion researchers like Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap have found this conflict is perceived to exist between free market capitalism and a science supposedly subverted by a communist, and even fascist, ideology disguised as environmentalism. This framing is entwined deeply in the rhetoric and psychology of movement conservatism.

Just as the creationist movement’s persistence grew out of its success in linking religious identity with creationist belief, there is a danger that climate change denial could establish itself as a permanent feature of American politics if denialist beliefs establish themselves as core parts of the conservative identity. There are worrisome signs that this may already be happening. Consider, for instance, the shifts in attitudes toward climate change among Republicans on the national political scene.

While George W. Bush is remembered for his administration’s attempts to rewrite scientific reports on climate change and muzzle climate scientists, it is worth recalling how his first campaign stole some of Vice President Gore’s thunder by backing a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, attacking Gore from the left on climate change. Through the 2000s, leading conservatives like Governors Romney and Pawlenty and former Speaker Gingrich recognized the threat posed by climate change, proposing or enacting policies to limit that danger. In the early years of the Obama administration, conservative Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman joined liberal Senators Kerry and Boxer in crafting cap-and-trade legislation that would fight climate change.

But by the summer of 2010, a shift in elite conservative opinion was apparent. In October 2009, Senator Graham had co-authored a New York Times op-ed with Senator Kerry, declaring, “we agree that climate change is real and threatens our economy and national security … many scientists warn that failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will lead to global instability and poverty that could put our nation at risk.” By June 2010, however, he abandoned the cap-and-trade plan, explaining to reporters: “The science about global warming has changed. … I think they’ve oversold this stuff, quite frankly. I think they’ve been alarmist and the science is in question. … The whole movement has taken a giant step backward.”

The 2012 Republican nomination battle saw Romney, Gingrich, and Pawlenty all disavow their past support for climate science and climate protection. In one debate, Pawlenty was challenged on his climate change efforts as head of the National Governors Association and governor of Minnesota, and replied: “It was a mistake, and I’m sorry … You’re going to have a few clunkers on your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. … I made a mistake.” As Newt Gingrich took heat for a TV ad in which he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat together and spoke on behalf of climate action, he repeatedly declared it was “the dumbest thing I’ve done in the last four years.”

Mitt Romney, who prioritized climate change action as governor of Massachusetts, used his speech accepting the Republican nomination to take a dig at President Obama’s concern over climate change, then repeated the line on Meet the Press, insisting: “I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet.”

Indeed, the only candidate for the Republican nomination who dared express support for climate action was Governor Jon Huntsman, who tweeted in August 2011: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” He barely registered in polls and left the race shortly after the first primary. In his campaign’s waning days, he tried reversing course, declaring: “There are questions about the validity of the science — evidence by one university over in Scotland recently.” He was apparently referring to emails stolen from a British university and selectively quoted by the climate change denial movement in an effort to discredit science and harass specific researchers — not exactly the sort of trust he avowed a few months earlier.

An encouraging sign, though, is that Republicans and Democrats alike are increasingly recognizing that climate change is happening. While the large partisan gap that began to emerge around 2006 persists, public opinion has not hardened to the degree it has with evolution.

Furthermore, there are growing challenges to the climate change denier framing, and the effort to tie climate change denial to the core identity of conservatism.For instance, the vigorous “creation care” movement presents climate change as a challenge that evangelical Christians are morally obligated to address as part of their Biblical obligation of stewardship for the earth. Hunters and anglers, another generally conservative group, consistently report seeing the signs of climate change as migration patterns and mating seasons shift, and those groups’ strong conservation ethic stands at odds with climate change denial’s rhetoric. Business leaders, the captains of capitalism on whose behalf the climate change denial movement claims to be speaking, are increasingly demanding action on climate change, recognizing that it poses a threat to their bottom line, and fearful that inaction from the US government might place US businesses at a competitive disadvantage. Military leaders, retired and active duty, are increasingly vocal about the need to treat climate change as a significant threat, both as a direct threat to military bases and equipment, and as a driver of conflict and humanitarian crises.

Many conservatives identify strongly with the military, with business leaders, with hunters and fishers, and with evangelical Christianity. The tension between those different aspects of the conservative identity is likely to continue to grow as events like the massive droughts and fires of 2012, and epic storms like Sandy, become more common. If so, the climate change denial movement may not be able to fully merge with movement conservatism, averting the danger that climate change denial would join creationism as a permanent feature of the American sociopolitical landscape.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Politics of Science

6 responses to “Will Climate Change Denial Inherit the Wind?

  1. Pingback: OSTA » Blog Archive » Evolution and Climate Change Update from NCSE

  2. Pingback: religion murky in environmental concern | Eating the Elephant with a Spoon

  3. Reblogged this on Eating the Elephant with a Spoon and commented:
    good depiction of the larger cultural and societal context of my case study. interviewees reflected various aspects of the social movement characteristics discussed. for example, this one: “antievolutionism shifted from being a minority view among fundamentalist theologians to become a defining creed of fundamentalism” – and those who subscribe to it like those i interviewed…


  4. Pingback: Why Climate Change Denial Is Just Hot Air | Tim Batchelder.com

  5. Pingback: Why Climate Change Denial Is Just Hot Air | Tim Batchelder.com

  6. Pingback: Social movements and science denial — Josh Rosenau

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