James Inhofe, the senior Republican senator from Oklahoma and author of "The Great Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future," has recently become chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. As a result, we can expect his committee, and perhaps the Senate as a whole, to proceed on the basis that human-induced climate change is nothing but a twisted fantasy concocted by misguided intellectuals.
As conspiracy theories go, this one is a dilly. The overwhelming majority of American earth and weather scientists, working in hundreds of private universities and in public universities funded and supervised by all 50 states (red as well as blue), have apparently decided to risk their personal credibility and endanger their careers to tell a complex, well-coordinated lie for no apparent reason. Thousands of other scientists in countries ranging from Australia to Ireland to China, in a remarkable display of cooperation with the U.S., have subjected themselves to similar risks, with a similar lack of possible rewards.
It is hardly surprising that energy companies -- whose outsize profits may be reduced once the ongoing damage to the environment is recognized-- have for years subscribed to this conspiracy theory, and in some cases funded its proponents. But why do so many Americans believe them? Why do they ignore an overwhelming scientific consensus of the sort that few people question in matters of medical care, electronics design, or factory management? The reason is that the response to climate change affects people’s personal beliefs and lifestyles. It is not simply a political position, like controlling air pollution or saving the blue whale, but an issue that reaches deep inside our patterns of thought and behavior.
Climate change challenges people’s traditional beliefs about God
Ever since the Western world became Christian, people in our society have regarded nature as God’s exclusive handiwork; and ever since St. Francis, they have regarded it as evidence of His benevolence. Climate change indicates that the entire natural order is turning against us, and that it is doing so because of our actions. God seems absent from this process, either as a controlling force or as a protecting presence. We find ourselves in an empty, fragile environment that we alone must manage. Sen. Inhofe is probably speaking for a significant number of Americans when he declares himself unwilling to accept this: “God's still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
Climate change contradicts America’s heroic image of itself
The most enduring account of ourselves as an American people, which extends nearly twice as far back in time as the founding of our nation, is that we are continually, inexorably becoming more prosperous. This mind-set seems to be how most Americans measure personal success, and what they wish for themselves and for their children. Climate change brings our ethos of continual growth up against a definitive and rather claustrophobic limit. It not only demands different public policies, but different personal aspirations. It suggests that we cannot continue expecting that we will all live in bigger houses, drive bigger cars, own more machines and eat more steak. If ordinary people’s lives are to be improved, it suggests, such improvements will need to be through redistribution rather than growth, something that many conservative Americans find unacceptable.
Climate change demands different lifestyle choices
None of us, in our personal lives, produces much air or water pollution; these problems are created by industrial corporations and can only be ameliorated by them. But each of us contributes to climate change in the everyday, pedestrian manner known as our carbon footprint. We can achieve enormous reductions in the amount of greenhouse gases our society produces by reducing home heating and air conditioning, eating less meat, carpooling or using public transit, as well as taking a variety of other individual actions. But each person's behavior has trivial effects; significant reductions only occur if we act collectively. This means that changing our behavior is a matter of personal morality. We must commit to changing our lifestyle because it is the right thing to do, and, as in other moral areas, rely on our fellow citizens to act in the same manner in order to produce the general effects on our society that we desire. But environmental ethics of this sort is a new morality; it is separate from, and in certain ways conflicts with, the traditional morality that many conservative Americans believe in. Consequently, they resist it.
Where do we go from here?
Given these deep-seated sources of resistance, it might seem that we may be condemned to unending arguments about the reality of climate change when we should be moving forward to consider possible responses. But the situation is not quite as bleak as it might seem from listening to Sen. Inhofe. Certainly, the public debate about this crucial issue is not going to resemble the measured, rational discourse that many democratic theorists endorse. But it seems likely that attitudes will change, as they have about civil rights and women's status, and as they are currently changing about same sex marriage and the criminalization of marijuana use. A new morality is gradually emerging, one that embodies different approaches to these basic issues, and that is transforming our ideas about God's role, America's image and people's individual lifestyles. Over time, these new attitudes will seem increasingly appealing, young people internalize them and older people who refuse to change will either give up or die off. At some point, the resistance that has seemed so intractable will collapse. We can only hope that this happens before our crops are withering in the fields and our coastal cities are awash.
Edward L. Rubin is a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School. He is the author of “Soul, Self, and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State,” published by Oxford University Press.