Climate and the Culture War

A recent profile of Michelle Bachmann included several past statements in which she explicitly rejects the Enlightenment, which explains a lot.

The Enlightenment (dubbed the “new learning” in the colonies) ushered in a new sensibility, a new way of seeing the world–it substituted empirical observation for biblical “truth,” and thus made science possible. I’ve often thought that what today’s culture warriors really want is to reverse the Enlightenment; if that’s true, it’s ironic, in view of their constant references to the Constitution, because the Constitution was a direct outgrowth of Enlightenment philosophy. (Think John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu, Hobbes, Voltaire, and–above all–John Locke.)

As historians explain the paradigm shift that accompanied the new way of understanding our world, before the Enlightenment, you began with biblical “truth” as that had been interpreted by religious leaders, and education was the process of fitting what you saw into that pre-existing framework. If something didn’t fit, you ignored it. After the Enlightenment, you began by observing your surroundings, and when you had sufficient data, you formulated a theory to explain it. If subsequent observations called elements of that theory into question, you modified the theory. Today, we call that the scientific method. (It is in this scientific sense that evolution is a theory–not in the sense the term is often used in casual conversation–i.e., a guess.)

As Edward McMahon, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, has recently written,

“Despite overwhelming scientific consensus and mounting evidence all around us, why are so many elected officials unwilling to accept that climate change is a serious threat that demands immediate attention? One theory is that climate change is now “part and parcel” of America’s “culture wars”. Similar to abortion, gay rights, school prayer and other social issues, climate change has become a partisan political issue.

This might explain why earlier this summer, House Republicans pushed legislation to overturn a 2007 law, signed by President George W. Bush, that would gradually phase out old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs in favor of new energy efficient bulbs. “Having to buy energy efficient bulbs is an affront to personal freedom”, they said; never mind the fact that the average homeowner would save almost $90 a year by switching to the energy saving bulbs, and also never mind that the law, once fully implemented, would eliminate the need for 33 large power plants, according to one estimate.

A Gallup Poll conducted earlier this year found that a majority of Americans support the energy efficiency bulb law and that most Americans have already switched to more energy efficient bulbs. So what else explains why some politicians’ views on climate change are so out of sync with our scientific community — or for that matter, with the rest of the world? A cynic might say that fossil fuel interests, like coal companies, have used the tobacco industry’s playbook: disinformation, high priced lobbyists and their own so-called “experts” to confuse the public and delay action. However a new study published in the Spring 2011 issue of Sociological Quarterly suggests another reason. It finds that “conservatives’ failure to acknowledge the real threat of climate change, has more to do with its implications rather than skepticism of scientific facts.”

Conservatives believe in small government, reduced spending, and a go-it-alone foreign policy. But solving climate change will undoubtly require robust government, increased expenditures, and a great degree of international cooperation. People will go to great lengths to rationalize their deeply held beliefs. Science and logic are a lost cause in the face of ideological rigidity. To accept climate change is to question the wisdom of some people’s core beliefs.”

Questioning and testing the wisdom of our core beliefs was what the Enlightenment was all about. It was what the American Experiment was all about. And at the end of the day, that’s what our culture war is all about. Will we return to a time when the answers are handed down by a deity (and if so, whose?), or will we continue to question, learn and grow?