Global climate hypothesis

The Global Climate Hypothesis (GCH) is thoroughly entangled in our polarized partisanship, to the point that it is very difficult to hold a civil and reasonable conversation about that hypothesis. Indeed, I might already be in trouble with both poles. I imagine that some at one pole might say, “How could you call global climate change anything other than a terribly important and urgent fact, on which we must act promptly! You are inviting disaster!” I imagine that some at the other pole might say, “How can you promote that stupid hoax to the dignity of “hypothesis”? Don’t you see the enormous threat to our economy, jobs, and way of life? You are inviting disaster!”

Both statements demand that I take a side. But I think it’s more important to figure out how the GCH came to be entangled in our polarized partisanship, and whether or how the two might be disentangled, so that we can work on the issue practically.

Harder or easier to accept

We and our situations vary in ways that could make the GCH considerably easier or harder to accept:

The GCH could be easier or harder to accept, depending on the parts of the economy from which we get jobs, incomes, profits, and wealth. For example, harder if those are the coal, oil, and automobile industries, and easier if they are the renewable energy or insurance industries.

The GCH could be easier or harder to accept, depending on the strands of culture in which we grew up and which we live out. One ancient strand declares, “Real men chop, dig, drill, and burn to provide for their families and make the economy go.” In that strand, the GCH would be more difficult to accept. Another ancient strand declares, “The best people work with their minds to provide for their families and make the economy go.” If we hold and live out that strand, then the GCH might be much easier to accept.

The GCH could be easier or harder to accept, depending on the ideology we are committed to. If we are committed to the importance of individual initiative, entrepreneurship, free markets, and corporate business, then the GCH would be harder to accept. If we are committed to the importance of collective action to make all our lives better, then it would be easier to accept the hypothesis.

The GCH could be easier or harder to accept, depending on our histories. For example, if we supported environmental protection in the past, then the GCH might be easier to accept. If we were more concerned about the jobs and enterprises affected by environmental protection, we might see the GCH as a yet larger threat.

The GCH could be easier or harder to accept, depending on our party affiliations. Because economy, culture, ideology, and history with issues tend to be related to party preference, and parties tend to develop “party lines” about issues, and because party preferences are important to people, the GCH probably will be easier for Democrats to accept and harder for Republicans.

If we take that all of that together, then the GCH could be very much harder for some us to accept, and very much easier for others.

GCH and polarization emerged together

Neither the GCH nor our polarized partisanship sprang forth in the strong forms that we now encounter them. Polarization grew slowly. Initially the GCH was more speculative, tentative, and limited; there was nothing like the large national and international reports we now see.

If the GCH was considerably easier for Democrats to accept and then advocate, the GCH would tend to be defined as a “Democratic issue”, a matter around which Democrats organized, and a resource or weapon which they used in the partisan competition with Republicans. Gradually, and at a time when the stakes appeared to be much lower than they now appear to be, Democrats and Republicans came to be cast in their current roles. What would both do, if they knew then what they know now?


Communicating in a partisan environment

Recent studies of communicating about science in a partisan environment indicate that humans who belong to different parties and who hold different world views will find it easier to accept an hypothesis if the people who are presenting that hypothesis:

  • “make sure that sound information is vouched for by a diverse set of experts,”
  • present information “in a way that affirms rather than threatens our cultural world views and ways of life,”
  • bother to “use language that a wide range of competing world views can accept and affirm,” or
  • work with us to assure that “the law and policy express our own orientations.”

See the paper here.

I doubt things happened that way. We can at least ask whether any such communicative work occurred. There seems to be reason to doubt it. National Academy of Sciences reports on the GCH and related matters list the people who worked on the report, together with their academic and scientific credentials. There is no information about party affiliation, ideological position, cultural leaning, and so on; in science, those things are not supposed to matter. NAS panels are chosen for scientific credentials, not party balance. Thus, if the GCH is “vouched for by a diverse set of experts,” there’s no way for the public to know that—and it would be easy to think that all of the experts are from one’s own side–or from the other side.

If the GCH had been taken up as the issue of one or the other party, that party would be likely to speak and write in terms that affirm that party’s “cultural world views and ways of life.” Any law or policy that the party proposes is likely to express that party’s orientations. If Democrats endorsed the GCH first and took it up as their issue, they would be likely to express that endorsement in the terms of their world views and ways of life. Humans would do that.

For their part, Republicans would have have found it increasingly difficult to accept the GCH. The more they resisted, and the more the parties polarized, the harder it would be for Republicans to accept it. In this context, it is quite interesting to look at Gallup’s 2016 poll on the matter: Despite our polarized partisanship, 40% of Republicans “worried a great deal/fair amount about global warming”, up from 31% the preceding year.

I doubt that much work was done to assure that the law and policy expressed the orientations of a wide range of Americans. If Democrats have been the main political advocates of the GCH, and if Democrats are human, they probably would write law and policy that express their own orientations.

In sum

The GCH and our polarized partisanship emerged together in the last thirty to forty years. The GCH can be much harder or easier to accept, depending on our economic situation, cultural tendencies, ideological commitments, histories, and party affiliations. Democrats found it easier to accept the hypothesis and Republicans found it harder; the parties were cast in their current roles very early.

The GCH became a “Democratic issue; the ways in which Democrats communicated the GCH did not help Republicans to accept it. Partisan thinking—cultural cognition—aided the divergence of party positions. As our polarization increased, those positions hardened. So now we are stuck in a situation where much that we say has far more to do with our party affiliations than with the temperature of the globe.

All of this happened in ordinary human ways. There are no devils in this interpretation. If we were to explore other issues, we would no doubt discover how some became “Republican issues”, and how Republicans communicated in ways that made it harder for Democrats to accept their position. Even if blaming were a useful activity (which I doubt) we will find it difficult to locate either blameless or blameworthy participants. With few or no exceptions, we will find only ordinary human beings who were trying to get through the day.

What might be done?

Having described the workings of powerful forces and processes, I am not optimistic that we can find a way out of this mess. I do feel obliged to try.

Supposing that the interpretation above is about right, would it help for Republicans and Democrats to publicly agree to the interpretation? In my mind, such an agreement would have some clear implications.

Might it also help to look for something that is more important to us than our economic situations, cultural tendencies, ideological positions, and histories? There might be such a thing: The grandchildren. For the grandchildren, it is vital that we get this matter right.

If the GCH is wrong, but we accept it, then we might support actions that would unnecessarily constrain our economy, and the grandchildren might inherit a poorer life. If the GCH is right, but we reject it, then the grandchildren might inherit a less habitable, more dangerous, and more difficult world. We need to get it right, for the grandchildren.

But that doesn’t turn me into a scientist. So how do I form a sound citizen’s opinion? I do what I usually do when facing problems with a large scientific aspect: I go to the website of the National Academic of Sciences, which tells me about that organization and what it does. I look for its reports on global climate change and options for dealing with it. I read.

But aren’t scientists also subject to all these influences on thinking, including cultural cognition? Yes, I’m counting on that. I’m betting that most scientists keep their jobs and incomes mainly by doing sound science. I’m betting that for most scientists, the most important strand of culture is “science,” with its commitments to evidence and reasoning about evidence. I’m betting that for scientists, the most important affiliations are not with political parties, but with science and other scientists.

A scientist cannot maintain a reputation as a scientist by cherry-picking evidence to fit a desired conclusion, or by claiming more than the evidence will support, or by doing a study and publishing findings that other scientists cannot replicate, or by reviewing the evidence and coming to a politically-dictated conclusion. Those are all good ways to lose one’s standing as a scientist.

So I bet scientists think pretty much the same way as the rest of us do, but they have different investments and different affiliations. So I think they can be credible—on scientific matters in which they are expert, matters on which their reputation as scientists depends.

So I go to the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council website, look for reports, and read. But that’s another story. My story here is that the global climate hypothesis has become deeply entangled in our polarized partisanship, and we need to find a way out of that difficulty.

New 31 May 2017


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