Conservatism is a political philosophy that is, at its most fundamental, about resisting change.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that an outrageous and absurd line uttered about global warming in 2003—Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe’s assertion that it is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”—has not, nearly a decade later, been discredited on the right. Instead, this idea has persisted.
This raises at least two points for me that bear addressing:
First: We need to acknowledge that denying science is very likely politically beneficial to Republicans today. Why? When Santorum denies climate science, he also defines an enemy: Environmentalists, those who are shutting down American industry and ingenuity based on ideologically driven junk science (or so the thinking goes).
We are learning that Republicans and conservatives, more than liberals and Democrats, are sensitive to fear and threat, and more attuned to the difference between themselves and out-groups. If environmentalists are successfully defined as a threatening out-group attacking American values, that is therefore an emotionally resonant political rallying cry.
Second: In using the word “hoax,” Santorum is apparently endorsing the global warming conspiracy theory. What do I mean by that?
This is the idea (at least in some incarnations) that a shady international group of scientists, NGOs, and leftwingers (especially European ones) are out to hamstring economies to advance a red, or at least pink, agenda of global governance. To do this, they need a covert issue to scare everyone into the kinds of changes they demand—hence the bugaboo of global warming.
The conspiracy theory was actually fully articulated in the late Michael Crichton’s controversial novel State of Fear. There, the environmentalists actually turn out to be, like, ninjas who aren’t above violence and generating fake weather disasters to advance their goals.
Does Santorum really think these kinds of things? I don’t know, because his logic is not fully articulated. But, in using the word “hoax,” it is hard to imagine what else he might mean.
A hoax, after all, implies nothing if not a coordinated effort to make people believe something that is known not to be true. So there has to be a cabal, a conscious effort at deception. And if the issue is global warming, then the cabal itself has to be global—for so is the scientific community and the international community seeking action on the issue.
What such a hoax would actually entail boggles the mind—it could never be pulled off—but never mind. The point is that Santorum is now lending implicit credence to the idea.
If we had a reasonable national discourse, making the “hoax” charge about global warming would get Santorum labeled a conspiracy theorist.
As Santorum pulls states into his column, then…we can safely say that is not the sort of discourse we have.