Climate Change Denial and the American Authoritarian Tradition

Fox News, the official propaganda network of the Republican Party and the favorite

Fox News, the official propaganda network of the Republican Party and the favorite “news” station for neck-vein bulging, grumpy old men everywhere, totally doesn’t buy climate change.

A lot of people in America don’t believe in anthropomorphic climate change, or, as it’s more colloquially known as, global warming. You see, it snowed this past winter in Squeallikeapiggyville, North Carolina, so that must mean that global warming is a big hoax concocted by pointy-headed, anti-Jesus, scientific Satanists hell-bent on promoting a vast, global climate conspiracy for the nefarious purpose of…securing grants to study the climate. You know, as far as conspiracies go, that one is pretty damn lame — especially when you consider the far grander designs for world conquest proposed by the New World Order, the Reptilian Lizard People, and Justin Bieber.

But the utter ridiculousness of a world-wide conspiracy to secure funding for scientific papers hasn’t stopped an army of right-wing interests from convincing one in four Americans that climate change isn’t real. More importantly, only a measly twenty-four percent of registered Republicans believe that humans are contributing to climate change. And there’s the kicker: climate change denial is, for all intents and purposes, a conservative phenomenon. If you’re a believer in right-wing political theology, there’s a good chance you think that global warming is a giant liberal hoax.

Case in point: as Salon’s Lindsay Abrams notes, one of Fox News’ resident ogres, the always glum Charles Krauthammer, recently dismissed the scientific consensus on global warming. “Ninety-nine percent of physicists convinced that space and time were fixed until Einstein working in a patent office wrote a paper in which he showed that they are not,” Sir Charles observed before defiantly declaring that, “I’m not impressed by numbers. I’m not impressed by consensus.” In response, the generally erudite Jonathan Chait points out that Sir Charles was basically dismissing the very idea of scientific expertise. “Krauthammer here has taken a radically skeptical position not merely on climate science, but on all science,” Chait writes, “given the provisional and socially constructed peer pressure driving the consensus theory of aerodynamics, it is amazing that he is willing to travel in an airplane.”

So what is it about conservatives in particular that makes them so skeptical of an issue with such solid and overwhelming scientific consensus? Well, you could say that they’re just dumb, and in some cases that would be true. But in most cases, it’s not that conservatives are stupid, or that they reject all appeals to authority; rather, they’re all about authority — as long as that authority supports a consensus that keeps conservatives in positions of power.

Conservatives like Krauthammer dismiss the overwhelming evidence for global warming not because they aren’t convinced by the evidence, but because they know that accepting the reality of global warming would potentially damage the business interests — specifically the fossil fuel industry — that wield vast amounts of power in American politics by providing the funding that supports right-wing politicians and pundits. As shown in a ground-breaking recent study by scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, America is not a functional democracy; instead, it’s basically an oligarchy: a governing structure in which a small number of people — the business elites — control the political system. Political power in America rests within the authority of the superrich business lobby, and, for conservatives, this authority of wealth is the only authority that matters.

Don't worry about the melting ice caps, folks, Fox News says this will improve the property values in Palm Beach.

Don’t worry about the melting ice caps, folks, Fox News says this will improve the property values in Palm Beach.

This authoritarian preference — based on the idea that those in power must wield control over their considerably more numerous subordinates so as to assure an orderly society — is the defining characteristic of conservatism. It’s why conservatives promote the power of employers over employees; it’s why they demand that the state deny a woman her right to choose, and it’s why they reject climate science. In each of these cases, conservatives support the agents that are already in power so that those agents can retain their power over various subordinate groups. Krauthammer and his ilk fully understand that admitting to the reality of climate change might spur a cultural push, if not political legislation, to curb the largely untrammeled power of business interests to effectively shape American policy. Plus, liberals are in favor of stopping global warming, so there’s that.

The authoritarian instinct is also the common thread that unites religious social conservatives with libertarian conservatives who might otherwise reject religious beliefs and champion a more libertine approach to social behavior. Both groups center their ideologies on appeals to unquestioned authority. For social conservatives, that authority is the Christian God; for libertarians, that authority is the god of the free market. The core that holds these otherwise different groups of conservatives together is the notion that authority, whether it be God or the god of the marketplace, MUST NOT be questioned. Further, those who do have the brass gonads to question these supreme authorities are labeled foolish heathens or commie pinkos. Either way, conservatives view challenges to authority as illegitimate, even if those challenges come from, say, scientific experts.

For all of their differences, nearly all American conservatives believe in the inalienable authority of capitalism to the point where the lines delineating God from the god of the marketplace become blurred. When the market’s authority is challenged, is makes right wingers susceptible to embracing conspiracy theories as a way of dismissing legitimate challenges to capitalism’s authority.

Of course, people of all political ideologies are susceptible to conspiracy theories, but conservatives are especially prone to these loony ideas. Does anyone really think that ANY amount of actual data and evidence would convince hardcore climate change-deniers to change their minds? Of course not. Like all conspiracy theorists, these people have an ideologically vested interest in disbelieving global warming: they don’t WANT global warming to be real because if it were real, it would mean that there were (gasp!) negative consequences to the unlimited spewing of toxins into the ozone — and that would mean that capitalist development wasn’t (shock!) one-hundred bazillion percent perfect and beneficial! So, global warming deniers have convinced themselves that climate change isn’t real. Say what you will about Al Gore, but he was right: the most rejected truths really are the inconvenient truths that threaten to upend cherished human beliefs.

But conservatives are able to get away with their slavish devotion to the authority of capitalism thanks to the unique trajectory of American history. As historian William Leach observes in his book Land of Desire, the era that closed out the nineteenth century firmly linked capitalism to American identity. After 1885, Leach writes, mass industrialization and the growth of consumer culture created an American democracy defined by accumulation of wealth and predicated on the idea that wealth and the ownership of consumer goods equaled freedom — and power. “This highly individualistic conception of democracy emphasized self-pleasure and self-fulfillment over community or civic well-being,” Leach writes. Thus, “democracy could be ensured through the benign genius of the ‘free market’,  which allocated to Americans an infinitely growing supply of goods and services.”*

Of course, linking American freedom so thoroughly to capitalist consumption also elevated business elites to the pinnacle of American power and influence. In a society where buying and selling became the be-all and end-all of human existence, those who facilitated mass consumerism and wealth acquisition became American demigods, even as the shares of American wealth have been highly unequal in the past, and continue to be vastly unequal today.

America: land of the free, home of the shopper, global warming be damned!

America: land of the free, home of the shopper, global warming be damned!

Conservatives sanction this type of extreme consumer society because it sustains the authority of the already-powerful. Moreover, they gain widespread public support for their god of the marketplace thanks to what scholar Nelson Lichtenstein calls the “ideological trope” that asserts that, “democratic institutions are bound to flourish in a market society composed of numerous nodes of autonomous economic and institutional power.”* In other words, as long as Americans see themselves as free to buy all the crap they want, they’ll see themselves as wholly free.

This is why conservatives have made climate change denial a popular issue: they frame the issue as a threat to capitalism and thus, a threat to people’s unlimited ability to buy stuff, which Americans, in turn, see as a threat to their freedom. Hence, right-wing media mollusks like Charles Krauthammer aren’t denying climate change because they don’t think it’s real; they’re denying climate change because they see it as a vehicle through which liberals want to sneak critiques of unfettered capitalism by drawing attention to how market forces harm the natural environment. Krauhammer and other like-minded goons feed climate change denial to the masses by using consumerist language that appeals to Americans’ pocketbooks: “Any initiatives to address climate change will tax you more, raise your gas prices, and threaten your jobs.”

Right-wing climate change-deniers get away with such nonsense because American culture has historically fused consumer capitalism and national identity to the point where even suggesting that the two ideas might not be completely compatible invokes warnings of the second-coming of Chairman Mao. This is why appeals to rational evidence make no headway in the conservative mind: anything that threatens the authority of capitalism and, by extension, conservative power, is grounds for dismissal. On the plus side, we may be getting a hell of a lot more beachfront communities in the near-future, which will be great for vacation-minded, freedom-loving American consumers.

* See William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 6.

* See Nelson Lichtenstein, ed., American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 7.

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