Is the United States to Blame for Climate Change? Part 1.

Having pondered in this blog why Republican politicians think about climate change as they do (often with their heads planted firmly in the sand), I wonder, too, about the United States as a whole. Most Americans believe climate change is real and say they want the government to do something about the problem. But they (actually we, since I am an American) often elect political leaders who disagree with this majority view, and Americans enjoy what the rest of the world would consider a luxury lifestyle, heavily based on burning fossil fuels.

Is it fair to say that the United States bears the major responsibility for ongoing and excessive climate change, including any catastrophic outcomes? Should the U.S. be considered the villain of this time in human history? Or instead, is the failure to come to grips with climate change a reflection of flaws in the way that the whole human race thinks and acts?

I find it easy to be of two minds about the question, and I think that will be a good way to consider the issue, by setting out two arguments, pro and con. In this first post I reflect on why a reasonable person might conclude that the U.S. is the villain, and in a subsequent post I will explore an alternative point of view, that humanity as a whole bears the blame for climate change. Perhaps then I can reach a conclusion.

In a sense the question of America’s culpability is theoretical, and may be more backward-looking than forward-looking. But those who are deeply concerned about climate change probably wonder how homo sapiens got itself into such an awful situation, one that threatens human existence on our planet as few if any other crises do. Perhaps only nuclear war, or collision with a giant asteroid, or a hypothetical new era of massive worldwide volcanic activity are potential threats to humanity of the same magnitude as runaway climate change.

The case that the United States is chiefly to blame for climate change is based on multiple perspectives, including:

  • The U.S. was responsible for more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (27%) between 1850 and 2011 than any other country. The entire European Union (with a bigger population than the U.S.) was only the second largest emitter (25%), with China a distant third (11%). Even looking only at more recent years, between 1990 and 2011 the U.S. was the largest emitter of GHG.
  • A few years ago the U.S. became the world’s biggest producer of oil (petroleum), with annual output that exceeds Saudi Arabia’s.
  • Except for Canada, which has a relatively small population, and a few other nations that produce large amounts of fossil fuel, like Saudi Arabia, the U.S. emits the greatest amount of GHG per person of any nation in the world. For example, the per capita rate in the U.S. is more than 2.5 times as large as in China—and much of China’s carbon pollution should actually be counted against other nations that use many of the goods China produces and exports. On average, Americans’ lifestyles are more carbon-polluting than almost everyone else’s.
  • American fossil fuel companies, such as Exxon, have funded disinformation campaigns for decades, aimed at undermining scientists’ findings and conclusions about climate change. These campaigns continue today, e.g. through support of the Heartland Institute.
  • American leadership on climate change is weak at best, and some would say it is severely crippled or absent. The American political system is gridlocked; in particular, Republican climate skeptics make it virtually impossible to pass new federal laws (or, in many cases, state laws) to combat climate change.
  • The United States has flip-flopped on international climate change agreements. Notably, the U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, under President Clinton, but then refused to ratify the treaty under President George W. Bush. Indeed, the Protocol was not even submitted to the Senate for ratification. Other nations have legitimate concerns whether or not the U.S. will follow through on promises that it makes to combat climate change.
  • Less developed nations, and thoughtful people everywhere, argue that principles of “climate justice” ought to guide the U.S. and other wealthy nations as they address climate change. For example, under a United Nations framework, developed nations pledged to contribute $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries threatened by rising seas and other threats to mitigate climate change. But economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to the Secretary of the U.N., says “the [developed] countries have not been honest at all in mobilizing that funding. Second, if they had been honest, we’d see that it’s much too small to be decisive.” (Note: In comparison the world already spends trillions of dollars annually on energy financing.) It remains unclear that the countries historically responsible for GHG emissions are prepared to make sufficient sacrifices in order to help poor nations, or poor people everywhere; yet it is poor people who will especially bear the burdens of rising sea levels, global warming, droughts, and other climate-related threats.

These perspectives show how much the United States has contributed to the problem of climate change and how inadequate the U.S. responses have been so far. Do they also show that the U.S. bears primary moral responsibility, i.e. blame, for climate change?

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Cover-up by Fossil Fuel Companies

A post on this blog several weeks ago noted that greed was the likely reason why fossil fuel companies support pseudo-science that fosters doubt about the causes and serious implications of climate change. A recent report and investigation go further. They show that large fossil fuel companies have actively supported disinformation and propaganda campaigns, including fraudulent letters supposedly from the NAACP, the American Legion, the American Association of University Women, and other respected organizations, all aiming to weaken regulations related to emissions; and, in addition, funded phony “grassroots groups” to counter regulations. Yet since the 1970s the leaders of these same companies were aware that burning fossil fuels causes climate change because their own investigations (as well as research by independent scientists) reached those conclusions. The only sensible explanation for such mendacity aimed at deceiving policymakers and the public is greed.

In 1995 an industry-sponsored group called the Global Climate Coalition concluded that “the impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” The author was a chemical engineer and climate expert at Mobil. Earlier, in 1977, Exxon’s managers learned from their internal experts that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing climate change is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” Exxon then commissioned millions of dollars of new scientific research, conducted by Exxon itself, which documented the growing problem of CO2 emissions. (This web page includes more information about the investigation of Exxon by Inside Climate News, as well as a short video from PBS’s Frontline.)

Will it be possible to litigate and recover hundreds of billions of dollars in monetary damages from fossil fuel companies, similar to what happened decades ago when the tobacco companies were shown to have covered up the truth about the harm caused by smoking? That possibility seems remote, but perhaps will happen.

Why Is There a Partisan Divide On Climate Change?

National polls in the United States show a partisan divide on climate change, with more Democrats than Republicans believing that climate change is happening, that human beings are responsible, and that government should play an active role in reducing climate change and preventing catastrophic results. This is not to say that either party is exemplary or that all Republicans deny that climate change is a problem (two points to which we will return). Still, the differences between the two parties are remarkable; for example, nearly half of Democrats (47%) tell pollsters they are willing to join a campaign to convince elected officials to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels, compared to only 20% of Republicans.

Why is there such a large difference? That is a deceptively simple question! There are countless books and articles about American political opinion (e.g., Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion), and even experts are likely to disagree.

Many of the current Republican candidates for President hold extreme views. Ted Cruz has compared his denial of climate change to the bravery of Galileo in advocating that the earth moves around the sun! Rick Santorum doesn’t believe that the science of climate change “checks out,” and in 2012 he made a joke about the danger of excess carbon dioxide, saying “tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.” Donald Trump has said, “I’m not a huge believer in the global warming phenomenon.” This astonishing litany can be extended many times over.

However, keep in mind that leaders of the G7, including heads of state in the U.S., Germany, and the United Kingdom, not long ago made false and overly optimistic claims about climate change. Or that James Hansen, a leading scientist on climate change, recently called Hillary Clinton’s plan to install vast amounts of solar power “just plain silly,” by which he meant that her plan was not sufficiently well matched to the size of the problem. Remember, too, that the issue of climate change was almost entirely missing in the 2012 Presidential campaign, when reporters asked few if any questions about that topic and the candidates, including President Obama, did not volunteer to discuss the issue. In short, there are far too few climate change angels in either political party.

Nonetheless, why have Republicans as a group been so much more willing than Democrats to dismiss climate change as not real, or simply a natural phenomenon, or merely a distant problem? Here I suggest five important reasons based on psychology, and three other reasons based on politics. (These reasons are not meant to be exhaustive.)

Psychology

All of the psychological barriers discussed on this blog, such as judging something based on emotional stimuli rather than careful analysis, apply to members of any political party. But some barriers seem especially applicable to Republicans vis-à-vis climate change. People often see what they expect to see, and thus interpret facts and observations in ways that support their preconceptions (a phenomenon called confirmation bias).

Market fundamentalism. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, who have authored two books about climate change, believe that extreme market fundamentalism is perhaps the major barrier preventing more decisive action on climate change. “The markets will take care of it” is a mantra for many more Republicans than Democrats. Apparently Republicans think that is true even though pollution from excess carbon is not properly priced, perhaps believing that technology will somehow save the day (if, in fact, they believe that excess CO2 is causing climate change).

Suspicion of government. In 1981, Ronald Reagan famously declared in his inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Distrust of government has probably grown greater since that time. Republicans, more than Democrats, believe in a smaller government, especially a smaller federal government. Republicans are loath to give additional regulatory power related to energy and climate to the President or federal agencies, and that attitude seems to bias their analysis of climate change.

Religion. Evangelical Christians, who often vote Republican, are much less likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change than other Christians or the population at large. One survey found that 62% of evangelicals say they are “not very” or “not at all” worried about climate change, and only 41% believe global warming is caused by human activity, compared to 69% of Democrats. Apparently many evangelical Christians believe that God would not allow human beings to destroy earth’s environment, or would save humans if the environment were at risk. For example, Republican Senator James Inhofe has said, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” (But presumably evangelicals don’t want their children to ingest mercury, lead or arsenic, understanding that those substances cause harm; yet God could cure a child’s health problems in the blink of an eye. Go figure!)

Anti-science, anti-expert. A decade ago author Chris Mooney wrote an excellent book called The Republican War on Science documenting the many scientific issues on which elected Republicans fought, censored, or de-funded expert opinion. Federally-funded research in the social sciences has been one of the special targets of Republican ire, who distrust many experts and who are likely to further inflame distrust among voters already skeptical about most American institutions. Evolution is another area in which many Republicans (including at least one Presidential candidate) don’t believe scientists. An extreme case is Republican Senator James Inhofe, who has said, “The reason that I am not impressed with Science or Scientists is because the Lord Almighty can overcome all these so-called facts in the blink of an eye.” This statement is reminiscent of the official in the George W. Bush administration who said that the interviewer lived in a “reality-based community” but “that’s not the way the world really works anymore” because “when we [the Republican White House on behalf of America] act we create our own reality.”

Following misguided opinion leaders. People’s judgments are often influenced more by those they know and/or trust than by certified experts. Many more rank-and-file Republicans than Democrats pay attention to commentators who are skeptical but ill-informed about climate change, including conservative television and radio hosts. As another example, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has been extreme and ill-informed on the issue of climate change, lending support to skeptics. Also, many leading Republicans in Congress come from states heavily dependent on revenue from fossil fuels and their opinions are tilted against climate change; e.g., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell frames climate change not as a matter of preserving the environment but as a “war against coal.”

Politics

When we consider politics and climate change we must add additional barriers, above and beyond psychology.

Structural problems. Voters in Republican primaries are more conservative than other Republican voters. For that reason Presidential candidates pitch their messages to the so-called Republican base rather than to the average voter. Similarly, the U.S. House of Representatives is more conservative than all Republican voters, or than the American electorate as a whole, due in part to gerrymandered districts. In the Senate, low-population mineral-dependent states, such as Alaska or Wyoming, have the same number of Senators as California or New York and thus have disproportionate power.

Pent-up anger. The American electorate’s anger with government spills over into distrust and also careless thinking. Thus errors by Democrats unrelated to climate change, such as the failure to bring financial executives to trial after the recession while simultaneously bailing out the big banks, may undermine other ideas and policies voters associate with Democrats, including climate change.

Oil and gas money. According to Common Cause, campaign spending by fossil fuel interests “has silenced the debate on climate change.” Republican officials, they say, are afraid to discuss the issue. Looking ahead, the network of think tanks and PACs associated with the Koch brothers (wealthy conservatives in the fossil fuel business who object to increased regulations and who have funded pseudo-science that questions climate change) plan to spend nearly $900 million in the run-up to the 2016 elections. According to one source, even the Smithsonian Institution’s national museum exhibits related to climate change have been improperly influenced by Koch money. Already newspaper ads funded by the Koch brothers oppose the EPA’s proposed plan to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by power plants.

Conclusion

Republicans’ core beliefs, such as wanting a smaller government, apparently lead them to be more dismissive than Democrats about climate change. Nonetheless, Republicans are not a monolithic group; e.g., nearly half of moderate and liberal Republicans believe climate change is caused primarily by humans, compared to 22% of conservative Republicans. Unfortunately, structural problems with the American political system, combined with huge amounts of money from fossil fuel interests (some fraction of which supports deliberate disinformation campaigns), skew the way that Republican members of Congress and GOP Presidential candidates vote and speak on the issue of climate change. Although a majority of Americans say they want the government to act on climate change (hoping, of course, that any such action won’t be expensive), structural problems make it almost impossible to pass new federal legislation to address the issue.

Greed and Climate Change

A search for the word ‘greed’ in Robert Gifford’s “The Dragons of Inaction”—a 2011 paper in American Psychologist that lists 29 psychological barriers to action on climate change—leads to nothing. Greed is not mentioned.

In a paper that has been cited hundreds of times, that omission is absurd. Greed is clearly a significant factor limiting action on climate change.

Consider the industry-sponsored campaign to discredit research showing that smoking causes lung cancer as well as other diseases. Eventually the tobacco industry was convicted of crimes for covering up scientific studies, some of which they themselves had commissioned. Dozens of documents revealed during the trial indicated that industry executives knew very well that smoking killed people—but they did not want to stop reaping profits from selling tobacco products. The industry had to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in penalties for their greed, i.e. for continuing to cause disease and death by selling an addictive substance, in order to make money while covering up the truth.

More recently, the oil industry has directly and indirectly fought against action on climate change. Greed must top the list of reasons why the industry fights against the inconvenient truth that burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change. The fossil fuel industry helps to subsidize the “merchants of doubt” who publish pseudo-science, thereby aiming to undermine the real science of climate change. As in the case of tobacco, one of the world’s most powerful industries is using its political and financial muscle to fight the truth, based largely on greed.

Politicians serving in places where coal, oil, and natural gas are important industries also are acting in a greedy way, placing their desire to hold office ahead of approaching the truth in an open-minded manner. We can be sure that scientists, including people working in every Congressional district, have tried to explain the well-documented science of climate change to each and every member of the House and Senate.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who currently chairs the Senate committee with major responsibility for climate change, has had ample opportunity to learn the science. However, in 2012 Inhofe published a book called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Inhofe’s bizarre ideas (thousands of scientists in dozens of countries are really part of a global conspiracy?) seem heavily influenced by his religious convictions. However, one should not forget that the oil and gas industry is powerful in Oklahoma and helps influence elections there, through funding and other means.

Greed has been identified as a harmful human trait for thousands of years, in cultures around the world. But compare the psychologist’s list of reasons for inaction to what Pope Francis has to say in his recent encyclical on “care for our common home” (the earth). The Pope writes directly and frankly about the need to curb greed, as well as to reduce wastefulness and over-consumption. He says, for example, “When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases.”

Greed is not the only obstacle to fighting climate change but nonetheless it is an important one. It is interesting and disturbing that in an increasingly secular culture a religious figure is willing to identify greed as a contributing factor to climate change while a respected psychologist fails to mention greed in a long list of human traits working against the future of mankind’s life on earth.

People’s tendencies to “keep up with the Joneses,” as well as for conspicuous (but unnecessary) consumption, are well documented. Yet it seems appropriate to ask whether some psychology “experts” are getting in the way of telling the truth. Is the idea of greed now considered out of fashion, or taboo, among prominent psychologists?

President Obama Provides Hard Truths about Climate Change

In June, leaders of the G7, including President Obama, made false claims about climate change. Now, a few months later, President Obama is at last speaking more forthrightly. His honesty is welcome.

Visiting Alaska to highlight the challenge of climate change, President Obama said on August 31, “We’re not acting fast enough,” a statement he repeated four times during his speech. He also pointed to people’s psychology as one important barrier, saying, “Let’s be honest; there’s always been an argument against taking action. We don’t want our lifestyles disrupted. The irony, of course, is that few things will disrupt our lives as profoundly as climate change.” (And a similar irony is that experts say if we had taken action several decades ago both disruption to people’s lives and the cost of ameliorating climate change would have been far less significant than they will be if we were to act decisively now.)

On the same day, Secretary of State John Kerry compared the dangers of climate change to the dangers of World War II, when “all of Europe was overrun by evil and civilization itself seemed to be in peril.” And the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Dr. John Holdren, said that if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced soon, temperatures could rise 7 degrees, causing catastrophic changes (per World Bank reports discussed earlier on this blog). Without action, the President said, “we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair.”

Has an American President ever spoken so bluntly about the risks of climate change? Not that I recall. Unfortunately, it has taken many decades for such straight talk to be delivered by a President. And yet even now it is not clear that enough political leaders in the U.S. and other nations will move beyond talk by quickly agreeing to and implementing policy changes.