Why is it that if you characterize yourself as "very conservative," you are twenty times more likely to be dismissive of the threat of climate change than if you consider yourself "very liberal"? (1) Or that if you are a Republican, you are four-and-a-half times more likely to be dismissive about climate change than alarmed, and if you are a Democrat, you are seven times more likely to be alarmed than dismissive? (2) How is it that political beliefs are so strongly predictive of beliefs about a purely scientific issue? Climate change does not touch upon closely held theological views, like evolution, and climate change is not an ultimately unresolvable moral issue, like reproductive rights. Simply put, either we are changing the Earth's climate, or we are not. That is an empirical question, albeit with enormous complexities. But the climate change polls demonstrate that people seem to skim over the scientific complexities and just treat the question as if it were an unresolvable moral or political dilemma.
It does seem odd that environmental issues should be political, as if there were moral values wrapped up inside technical, scientific, and statistical analyses. There is something postmodern about that. (3) It is as if both "liberals" and "conservatives" have this enduring skepticism about whether environmental issues are ever what they appear to be. Postmodernism has penetrated architecture, (4) art, (5) literature, (6) music, (7) and even law. (8) It would appear that it has also influenced the way that people view the science of the environment.
But why? What makes environmental science ripe for this permanent inquisition, but not economics, or political science, or biology, or physics? (9) Why do people seem to feel that environmental science is just another way of stacking the deck, when they do not feel that way about many other fields?
It is cognitively easier to feel than it is to think. Perhaps environmental issues--most notably climate change--make people feel something powerful and crowd out their rational thoughts. Environmental issues have a way of not just communicating some dry scientific fact; they also implicitly challenge some fundamental assumptions and beliefs about an industrial society that has created wealth that was unimaginable a century ago, while also creating inequalities and even harms that could scarcely be imagined. In other words, what people feel about environmental issues is tied up in what they feel about our industrial society.
Perhaps what is so frightening about climate change is not its potentially catastrophic consequences--that we could see more Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricanes (though not more total hurricanes); (10) that droughts like the one that plagued the United States in 2012 could be annual events; (11) that along with persistent droughts come extreme rainfall events that produce calamitous flooding; (12) or that changes in the acidity of delicately balanced oceans could decimate the phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain, with catastrophic consequences for those at the top (us). (13) Instead, what may be so frightening about climate change is what it means to our identities as members of a productive society. Even before Tom Brokaw declared the generation that endured World War II the "greatest generation," (14) people of the post-World War II era possessed the sense that they had pushed American life forward, but that succeeding generations, saddled with selfishness, narcissism, and infighting, had squandered its opportunities. What if the moral of that story were turned on its head, and it was our grandfathers who are to blame for rushing blindly into a fossil-fuel-fired society, irresponsibly ignoring its environmental implications? What if instead of being providers, the greatest generation actually mortgaged the future of its children and grandchildren? Maybe climate change is just the most recent, the most emotional, and …