Why Did Climate Progress Stall? It's Called Conservative Ideological Activation

Mon, 2011-10-17 08:25Chris Mooney
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Why Did Climate Progress Stall? It's Called Conservative Ideological Activation

There has been much reaction to this weekend’s Elizabeth Rosenthal New York Times piece—“Where Did Global Warming Go?” Clearly, the issue has fallen out of the news, and off the political agenda. The reasons for this are numerous: Politics, the recession, and media coverage are all at play here. But I think the New York Times piece does a stellar job of skirting the truly obvious explanation: a conservative denial machine was whipped up by “ClimateGate,” leading to a whole new and destructive brand of climate politics.

Recall the year 2007. Al Gore and the IPCC win the Nobel Peace Prize. The climate issue is riding high. Many of us assume that the next president will solve the global warming problem for good.

There was already much political resistance to climate action in the U.S. at that time, and right wing think tanks were sowing vast amounts of misinformation—as was Fox News. But the tide had clearly turned against the delayers and deniers…for good, many of us thought.

Then came a little event that the New York Times analysis does not even mention—“ClimateGate.”

It drew dramatic media attention. And while it may not have had a massive impact on public opinion as a whole, it served as a rallying cry for one key slice of the public in particular. As I reported in Mother Jones:

Climategate had a substantial impact on public opinion, according to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. It contributed to an overall drop in public concern about climate change and a significant loss of trust in scientists. But—as we should expect by now—these declines were concentrated among particular groups of Americans: Republicans, conservatives, and those with “individualistic” values. Liberals and those with “egalitarian” values didn't lose much trust in climate science or scientists at all. “In some ways, Climategate was like a Rorschach test,” Leiserowitz says, “with different groups interpreting ambiguous facts in very different ways.”

What did “ClimateGate” do for the right? How did conservatives interpret the issue, and how did this drive our plight?

To understand this, you need to understand a psychological process sometimes called “seizing and freezing.” Conservatives, who were losing the climate issue before “ClimateGate,” needed something—anything—to show them they weren’t all wrong about it, and that the fight wasn’t over. “ClimateGate” thus furnished the perfect rallying cry. Conservatives seized on the idea that this scandal proved, once and for all, that climate science was bunk—and they froze on this notion. Now, as a consequence, all you hear in Congress is about ClimateGate, and it is used as an excuse for complete dismissal of modern climate science knowledge, as well as the need for urgent action.

Granted, this is utterly irrational. “ClimateGate” didn’t prove anything of the sort. But it only matters that many conservatives thought it did–many seizing on little more than an out of context quotation, “hide the decline,” which served as a heuristic device–and they linked it in their minds with an utter debunking of any validity of global warming concerns—forever, for good. The absurdity of climate science is now a matter of certainty on the right wing. It's just a big hoax, they think. And if you don’t believe me, see this Rush Limbaugh commentary on climate change–and what Limbaugh says deeply matters, for he is followed faithfully by millions.

This was all happening, notably, as an intense conservative ideological activation was also occurring—the Tea Party movement. Fear over the recession, and outrage directed towards President Obama, were allowing angry conservative voters to channel their rage into the equivalent of a populist anti-government uprising. The climate issue became central to this movement, perhaps the leading exhibit—after “Obamacare”—demonstrating that the U.S. was lurching towards “socialism.”

Therefore, paradoxically, even as climate science grows ever stronger and more worrisome, conservative denial of scientific reality increased, as did overall partisan polarization over the climate issue.

Now, it would be one thing if we had a media that never printed false claims about climate change or ran phony “balanced” stories about it—and things would also be different if we had a president who had decided to take on the fight nonetheless, or an organized environmental movement that matched the Tea Party in ideological intensity or singleness of purpose. But we don’t have these things. What we do have, though, is a conservative movement that's full of passionate intensity on global warming. The issue has, indeed, become like abortion and guns—the New York Times gets this right–and that is the key reason why we can’t get anywhere on it.

But another reason is the failure to bluntly acknowledge that this has happened. So let's say it again: A conservative populist movement has rallied around climate denial, and spread the utter conviction that global warming isn’t real and human caused, and that attempts to address it reek of socialism. These claims are, by any serious standard, nonsensical and not worthy of serious consideration. But they are firmly held and present a massive roadblock to getting anything done–especially so long as the passionate wrongness on the right is not matched by a passionate devotion to accuracy in the media, or a passionate willingness to fight back effectively on the left.

Previous Comments

The theft of the East Anglia emails was like feeding a horse oats. The right wing echo chamber and its acolytes ate the emails and out came ****. 

I discussed, er, argued, the case for climate change with a right winger recently. Just the way he pronounced “climate scientists” showed a spiteful scorn. Thinking it over later, I should have asked why he thinks climate scientists are any different from any other scientists. But of well, what good would it have done?

The discussion ended when he explained to me that Viking relics have been found in California. Presumably he thought this proved Vikings took their open boats thousands of miles through the melted waters of the Arctic then. With ice cliffs all the way. A hardy folk the Vikings but this challenge is hard to envision. 

This is the second time I’ve had a discussion with a rightie that ended with a call to an ancient event. The other was ended with a claim that a 1000 year old parchment was found showing a map of Antarctica, where the ice was more melted than today. I remember having seen 15th century maps where the land-sea edges were vaguely defined.

These magical items are necessary to prove the medieval era was warmer than now. Hence recent global warming is insignificant. I don’t know where they get these yarns from. Casual googling yielded no hits.

“The other was ended with a claim that a 1000 year old parchment was found showing a map of Antarctica, where the ice was more melted than today. I remember having seen 15th century maps where the land-sea edges were vaguely defined.”

I had the same argument about 3 years ago. I kept the link, because it was so amusing. Not only the site where they got it from, but the source.


The only problem with this story is er………..800,000 year old ice cores that prove it wrong.


Some ancient guy was able to map the mountains in the interior of Antarctica. And the guys that “think for themselves” swallow this. Amusing indeed.

In my experience particularly with indoctrinated laymen, such yarns are often made up on the spot then presented as if they’ve always ‘known that’.

Even the famous nonsense on ‘one single volcanoe emitting a multitude of CO2 as humans do’ often seems to be made up during the talk, then presented as it really were the trivial fact everybody could think of. The plebs marches because it wants to. It loves stupidity, I mean it’s a kind of addiction even (take it away by presenting facts - they get very angry).

A quick answer: Some volcanoes emit soot, i.e., solid carbon dioxide. It doesn’t work its way into the air.

No volcano emits a lot of CO2 in gaseous form.

“It doesn’t work its way into the air”. Nah, we build roads and bunkers from it, great stuff really, though we fear some melting away as global temperature is slowing rising to -78° C.

Alright, you meant ‘soot’, which would be solid carbon. So how cold do you think volcanoes are that this carbon doesn’t burn once shot up into the air?


A quick answer: Some volcanoes emit soot, i.e., solid carbon dioxide. It doesn’t work its way into the air.

No volcano emits a lot of CO2 in gaseous form.



Don’t tell Ian Plimer that. He bases much of his argument & speaker tours on volcanoes.



…and that’s what the whole “climategate” episode demonstrated in spades.

Consider this – about three months ago, the CRU released *all* of the raw temperature data that global-warming deniers had been screaming for.  This, after the CRU worked for a couple of years securing permission from all the original data stakeholders.  And what have deniers done with the data that the CRU worked so hard to obtain permission to release? Nothing – nada – zilch – zippo.

Remember, folks – over two years ago, the CRU was *inundated* with boilerplate FOI demands regarding the raw temperature data the CRU used to compute global-average temperatures.  The CRU couldn’t legally release all of that data until it obtained permission from the owners (namely the national met services) of that data.

Over the next two years, the CRU worked hard to secure permission to release all of that raw data.  And what were the deniers who were demanding that data doing?  Were they writing code and otherwise preparing to analyze the data that they were clamoring so eagerly for?  What a silly question!

If the deniers who were demanding the CRU temperature data (and screaming “climategate” when the couldn’t get it as soon as they wanted it) weren’t so lazy and incompetent, they could have verified that the CRU global-temperature results were completely valid the very same day that the CRU released all that raw data.

Verifying the validity of the CRU results (and the NASA/NOAA results as well) from the raw data released by the CRU last summer is something that a competent analyst could have done the very same day that the CRU released the data.  But here we are, nearly three  months after the big CRU data release, and the deniers who had been demanding that data for the previous two years have produced absolutely *nothing*.

Had the deniers been serious about verifying the validity of the surface temperature data, they would have already written their own code to analyze the long-available GHCN data used by NASA.  It would have been a simple matter to modify that code a bit to handle the slightly different CRU data format and then process the CRU data.  Had the deniers performed that straightforward task, they would have found that the CRU data produces results nearly identical to the results generated by the GHCN raw data (or GHCN adjusted data, for that matter – the data adjustments don’t change the global-average temperature results very much at all).

But then, that would require deniers to do some *work* – something that very few of them are *able*, and none of them are *willing*, to do.


So: I absolutely think HadCrut shouldn’t gone to the trouble at all. Instead: demand facts and evidence and if they remain withheld: sue against slander. There was no obligation whatsoever for HadCrut.

What they actually fell into was a simple trap set up by the deniers. It is in fact a form of trolling. Same thing may be experienced on any internet chat (including this). Someone comes up with an argument that is false, you go to great pains to explain, correct and provide the evidence and then the other guy simply doesn’t reply - instead goes to another thread to dump his rotten reasoning there in exactly the same form. Perhaps with some nasty ad hominem remark as parting shot. So how do you feel? (I know, let’s keep this place decent).  

Recognize beforehand. Help serious scientists to understand that yes, knowing one’s margins of uncertainty and being honest about them, and diplomacy are virtues - but not always. In the face of evil it is moral duty to defend.


Charney et al. 1979 NRC/NAS report:

which is actually rather prescient about what has been occurring.  SInce then has just been more details.  Interesting details to be sure but still just details.

Apropos the headpost

To cut a long story short the theft/hacking of the CRU  emails gave the deniers/ advocates positioned as skeptics something to believe in.

Up to that point their nexus was refusing to believe in the greenhouse effect and AGW  in particular. That’s a negative ergo it doesn’t really capture the human imagination half as well as the climategate narrative. Its also something of a touchstone for deniers because as long as we are talking about climategate we are not talking about climate or mitigation



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