When to Stop Writing

The primary reason that I have been writing this blog has been as a stimulus for and record of my own education. In 18 months of research and thinking about psychology and climate change I have learned a great deal. I hope that some readers also have found the blog useful.

Although the subject seems inexhaustible, at some point there will be a good moment to bring the blog to an end. With the Paris agreement now in the rear-view mirror, this might be such a moment. However, as a volunteer actively helping to lobby the Massachusetts legislature to enact forward-looking green energy legislation, I may want to write more about that particular topic before the current legislative session ends next summer. Will the Massachusetts legislature react positively to the Paris climate agreement by passing laws to increase the supply of renewable energy (especially wind and solar) in the state? The state has an opportunity to become the American home to offshore wind companies, including the world’s largest wind turbine company (Dong Energy, a Danish company), and to help jump-start offshore wind development in the U.S., which lags far behind Europe in that area. But it is too soon to be confident what our legislature will do. Our state Senate is generally forward-looking about climate change and energy, while the House is more of a mixed bag. For example, one state representative with whom I spoke at length is clearly much more concerned about keeping the price of electricity as low as possible than he is in addressing climate change.

In anticipation of my final blog post, whenever that may be, I am adding to the blog an Adobe Acrobat document that includes all of the posts to date—more than three dozen—in chronological order. For those who may be interested in reviewing the blog in its entirety, it will be easier to read a single document than to scroll through the entries online. I will keep that document updated if and when I make any additional posts. It can be found in the “About” section of this blog: https://climatepsychology.wordpress.com/about/

What Do You See in The Paris Climate Agreement?

A few days ago nearly every nation in the world agreed on a plan to reduce carbon emissions. The result is a kind of Rorschach test for citizens. The written agreement is certainly more than an ink blot but it is less than a treaty (which the American Congress would almost surely not approve), and it raises for each of us the question: What do you see?

President Obama said, “This agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is fully committed to a low-carbon future. We’ve shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge.”

The New York Times summarizes its view this way: “the Paris agreement will need strong follow-up,” noting that “the cheering and the high-fiving have died down. Now comes the hard part.” In other words, nations must first follow through on their pledges (technically “intended nationally determined contributions”), and then do much more. Editors at the Times understand that if nations do only what they have pledged to do, scientists estimate that global temperatures will rise about 3.5° C, or 6.3° F, over pre-industrial levels, much more than the 2° C that the world has already agreed should be the maximum allowable global warming. Yet we know that warming of less than 1° C has led to the loss of half of Earth’s polar ice cap (and more warming is inevitable due to past emissions).

Climate scientist James Hansen, who warned Congress and the nation about climate change more than a quarter-century ago, has called the Paris talks “a total fraud.” In an interview from Paris, Hansen warned, “we’re not going to reduce emissions as long as we let fossil fuels be the cheapest form of energy. There are lots of countries that want to lift their people out of poverty. And of course, they should do that. But everybody would be better off if the price of fossil fuels was honest. It should include its cost to society.”

The Paris agreement included a kind of stretch goal, stating that the parties hope to limit warming to only 1.5° C. Climate activist Bill McKibben wrote that meeting the 1.5° C goal “would require breakneck action of a kind most nations aren’t really contemplating. At this point we’d need to leave almost all remaining coal and much of the oil and gas in the ground and put the world’s industries to work on an emergency basis building solar panels and windmills.” Replacing the world’s billion-plus automobiles with electric cars in just a few decades is an example of the enormous and expensive effort that would be required.

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates in the U.S., most of whom are skeptics about global warming, have barely mentioned the climate deal. And the Obama Administration’s EPA plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants is being attacked by at least 24 states, which have filed lawsuits to block it.

In a Psychology Today interview forty years ago, Idries Shah, the leading exponent of Sufism in the west and a founding member of the Club of Rome, was quoted saying, “This is a civilization that is going down, not because it hasn’t got the knowledge that would save it, but because nobody will use the knowledge.”

What do you see? In the historic Paris agreement do you see evidence that the world will, in fact, use its abundant knowledge in order to avoid truly catastrophic climate change?

Humanity’s Plan B

Humans are born explorers. It took only 10,000 years for our early ancestors who had already crossed from Asia to the Arctic to explore and settle lands stretching nearly to the southern tip of South America. From humans’ early origins in Africa and the Near East, and using primitive technologies, mankind populated virtually the entire world.

Starting in the 1960s the human race began exploring space. Two dozen people have been to the Moon and back, and hundreds have lived on the International Space Station. According to the Augustine Commission, which reported to NASA and the White House in 2009: “the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.” Sending humans to Mars in the decade of the 2030s—only 20 years from now—is part of NASA’s plans.

Exploring the solar system is risky—but so was sailing from Europe to America on the tiny Mayflower. Some of the colonists headed for the New World perished during or soon after the journey. Taking risks, like exploration, is part of human nature.

Planning and problem-solving are also part of being human. The Martian, a novel by Andy Weir and now a movie starring Matt Damon, shows how human ingenuity and perseverance overcomes potentially fatal problems as American astronauts explore Mars. Although The Martian is fiction, humans are, in fact, likely to take the risk of traveling to Mars.

Can humans do more than visit Mars? NASA is already considering how astronauts could use Mars’s natural resources to build, as illustrated in this quote from a NASA web page: “We must find ways to make what we need once we are at our destination. For example, the soil on Mars could be used to make modular structural building blocks to make shelters, landing pads and other useful structures.” For decades, scientists and writers have also been wondering whether it would be possible to use various resources to transform Mars into a warmer planet with a thicker, more breathable atmosphere, a process known as terraforming.

Recent discoveries of liquid water on Mars make colonizing Mars a more attractive prospect, and we already know that there is water on the Moon, a possible way-station for flights to Mars. Given time, money, and willpower, it may be feasible to create Martian settlements. Robert Zubrin, an influential scientist and engineer who in the late 1990s described feasible ways to send people to Mars, wrote an interesting article called The Case for Colonizing Mars.

Settling Mars would be a huge step for humanity, and it is a goal that could foster cooperation across the Earth, as the International Space Station has. Contrary to what many believe, the space program is not a large part of America’s budget (it is less than 0.5% of federal expenditures).

Going to Mars was a compelling idea before climate change was identified as a significant issue. Now, as an additional factor—beyond humanity’s natural curiosity, drive to explore, and innate capability to plan and solve problems—settling people on Mars can be viewed as a prudent insurance policy. Colonizing Mars could be Plan B in case our Plan A fails—that is, if the world acts too slowly and climate change is so severe that it makes Earth uninhabitable for humans.

To be clear, many thousands of people are working on the transition of Earth’s economies from fossil fuels to renewable energy so humanity avoids the worst effects of climate change. That is obviously an effort more governments should support, and more vigorously. We can hope that the pending Paris climate talks will lead to a breakthrough agreement—but even so, reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be a matter of performance, not paper promises. In any event, it is still important to invest in Plan B.

For the first time in history evolution of the human species lies consciously in the hands of the world’s decision makers—and not merely because scientists are able to engineer the human genome. Moving off of our home planet, Earth, will be a major step in the evolution of our species, but it is a step that will not happen by accident or due to a chance genetic mutation. Because of climate change, mankind’s future on this world and on Mars must be viewed as possibilities rather than certainties. In both cases the human race must make decisions soon.

Climate Change Education

The driving question for this blog has been: How can we encourage more people to think clearly about climate change? This post focuses on educational materials for varied audiences, adding to the resources discussed in earlier posts. The examples below illustrate the diverse range of material available designed to help people learn about climate change. Notably, the first item draws heavily on the type of psychological and communications-related research about climate change that has often been highlighted on this blog.

The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) is a collaboration of zoos and aquaria in the U.S., like the New England Aquarium, many of which provide the public with information about climate change. Together with the Frameworks Institute, financially supported by the National Science Foundation, and based on extensive research, NNOCCI developed a 12-module, values-based, self-guided online course focusing on how to provide information about climate change in a form that is understandable to the public and that avoids traps limiting the usefulness of the information. NNOCCI says, as an example, that focusing too much attention on dangers caused by climate change (“the crisis trap”) may garner people’s temporary attention but can often lead to a feeling that nothing can be done; and, that the “do one thing to combat climate change” approach is inadequate because it does not help people understand the importance of more comprehensive strategies based on community-wide actions. The course is available free online at Frameworks Academy and focuses especially, but not exclusively, on climate change and the oceans, using the metaphor of the ocean as “climate’s heart.” NNOCCI suggests spending 45 minutes on each of the 12 video and print modules; however, you can quickly sample modules in the course to see whether it fits your needs.

There are many “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) related to climate change aimed at adults and college students (see https://www.mooc-list.com/tags/climate-change). Most are free of charge. I enrolled in Climate Change in Four Dimensions last year, an outstanding college-level course then offered by U.C. San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography through Coursera (which still offers related courses). The four dimensions in the title are science, policy, international relations, and psychology/communication. Lectures and many other resources from the course are still available online via YouTube, including presentations by Professor Naomi Oreskes, lead author of the books Merchants of Doubt and The Collapse of Western Civilization.

The science education standards developed collaboratively by dozens of states, called the Next Generation Science Standards, identify climate change as a topic that should be taught to all elementary and secondary school students. One website that curates climate change resources for use in schools and provides links to many of them is http://www.climatechangeeducation.org/. NASA also maintains a useful website about climate change, including resources for “climate kids.” The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA) also offer useful resources, some for teachers and others for students.

Nonprofit groups across the country create slide shows and provide briefings aimed at state and local policymakers. These materials often focus on particular pieces of legislation related to climate change, such as proposed laws intended to increase use of renewable energy sources. There must be high quality briefing materials for national policymakers, such as members of Congress, but I cannot point to any. International organizations also develop educational materials for policymakers, such as a recent two-part IMF seminar on new opportunities to combat climate change that the IMF says are now possible in light of historically low oil prices.

I sometimes wonder why one does not see more spots or ads about climate change on television or in print, along the lines of public service announcements. I suppose that the answer is that a national media campaign focused on climate change would be very expensive and that no individual, foundation or organization has chosen to fund such a campaign.

Why is the World Combating Climate Change So Slowly?

I do not believe the United States is primarily responsible for the world’s slow response to climate change, but I am angry nonetheless at individuals, news media, and other organizations in the U.S. that have intentionally or carelessly supported disinformation campaigns. I am appalled that so many Republican candidates for President seem willfully ignorant and childish about climate change (and many other issues). It seems a shame that the United States has not played an even more significant leadership role than it has, say by investing more heavily in renewable energy, or by placing a carbon tax on gasoline and other fuels decades ago.

Who or what is mainly responsible for slowing the world down? After all, humanity has acquired far more scientific knowledge and technological capacity than ever in history. Why, then, has the world moved so slowly to replace old technologies based on burning fossil fuels with safer and more sustainable technologies?

Answers include personal and corporate greed, lack of imagination (e.g., believing the transition will be impossible or too expensive), and the tragedy of the commons, meaning that individuals, corporations, or nations perceive that their self-interests are not aligned with the interests of all. Although this list might be extended, just two reasons for the world’s slow response to climate change seem paramount.

First, research published during the past 50 years, and discussed often on this blog, documents the many ways in which human minds can become biased and reach erroneous conclusions—about economics, government, race and ethnicity, probability, and a nearly endless number of other topics, including climate change. It is easy to believe that psychology researchers are talking only about someone else’s biased mind, or that the problem of flawed thinking is restricted to evil and stupid people. But that is not the case; everyone, even an expert, is more prone to errors in thinking than one would wish.

In discussing climate change I saw how common it is for many intelligent, accomplished people to make errors in thinking. One friend, a university scientist, told me, “that’s a problem for our children”—but experts and President Obama say that if we don’t deal with the problem soon our children won’t be able to act in time. Other smart people have been much too skeptical about the reality of climate change, and its imminent threat, in the face of near unanimity among the world’s climate scientists—apparently not wondering how unlikely it would be for hundreds of experts to be wrong in issuing warnings that are based on decades of research  and that are vetted by governments around the world. Too many people I talk with demonstrate a lack of curiosity about the issue, despite alarming headlines. In contrast, an educated friend who is well connected around the world told me she finds climate change terrifying—but does not want to discuss it with friends or family and, like many people, has not acted on what she believes (a sure recipe for no progress, if everyone adopted the same attitude). A state legislator accepts that climate change is happening but focuses his energy primarily on reducing the price of electricity rather than on reducing GHG emissions, not willing to see renewable energy as essential, or that total electricity costs ought to include not only consumer prices but also the immense damage done by GHG emissions.

The second big reason the world has acted slowly is related to culture. The prevailing world view today is far different than in ancient Rome, or medieval Europe, or among primitive tribes (now mostly a part of history). In the main, people today have different views than people in the past about science, religion, morality, government, humans’ place in the universe, world interdependence, gender roles, etc.

Modern culture has achieved many remarkable things, but at the same time seems prone to certain particular errors in thinking more than did past cultures—which, of course, had their own blind spots, ones that we are glad to have left behind. This is a main argument that Oreskes and Conway make in The Collapse of Western Civilization, where they focus on some modern cultural beliefs—such as the virtues of the corporate free market, and the sacrosanct 95% confidence interval in science—as significant barriers that help explain why humanity is not coming to grips with climate change more rapidly.

To reiterate, humans’ prevailing thinking has changed over thousands of years (adopting a scientific world view; or the growing acceptance of democratic governance; or expecting standards of living in the world to grow without limit, which would have been an alien idea for most of human history). In trying to understand why it has been difficult for the world to combat climate change, the most useful explanation I find is to point to well-documented biases in the way human beings think, and presumably always have thought throughout history, combined with certain inadequate or erroneous beliefs prevalent especially in the modern world.

Individual and cultural blinders, operating separately and together, have made it surprisingly difficult for large numbers of people to clearly see, understand, and then act to mitigate the dangers of climate change. There are numerous of these blinders, and by definition for many people they are not visible, making the task of moving quickly to combat climate change exceptionally challenging. In short, and to repeat an idea from the last post, the problem is: “We have met the enemy and he is us,” as in Walt Kelly’s 1971 Pogo cartoon.

Is the United States to Blame for Climate Change? Part 3.

Considering arguments pro and con about whether to blame the United States for climate change (see Parts 1 and 2) my conclusion is that blame—responsibility, if you prefer—deserves to be widely shared. Climate change seems an example of what a classic Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly claimed almost a half-century ago about pollution of the natural environment: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” That cartoon was also a poster for Earth Day 1971, shown below (and licensed via Wikipedia).


One can easily appreciate the reasons why the world has harnessed fossil fuels, including moving billions of people out of abject poverty, thereby cutting world poverty rates by more than half in recent years. In just one or two generations China (whose GHG emissions now exceed those of the U.S.), India, and other less developed countries raised the standard of living of vast numbers of people, in part through burning fossil fuels. But despite 50 years of warnings, the nations of the world and most individuals have responded slowly, or not at all, to the threats posed by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels.

Technologies are always double-edged swords, providing benefits while also causing or exacerbating problems. The industrial revolution saved lives and increased standards of living—and also contributed to exponential population growth, the consumer society, and excess GHG emissions. (Similarly, computers and the internet have resulted in many benefits to the world yet also lead to concerns about hacking on a giant scale, erosion of personal privacy, cyber warfare, job loss, and more.)

In this context, one notes that the United States is a leading technology innovator. Many American icons, such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, are known for their innovative ideas, products and discoveries, most of which rely on energy in one way or another. Around the world, people have adopted countless American technological inventions and devices, and many aspire to American lifestyles. With respect to responsibility for climate change, the U.S. may be a technology and a lifestyle leader, but dozens of nations are eager followers.

Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in 1835, thoughtful observers have written about the “exceptionalism” of the United States, sometimes as praiseworthy and sometimes in disbelief (e.g., the amazement of most people outside the U.S. about the lack of adequate gun control in America). Many people wish to do away with “incurable American excess,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote, meaning guns, obesity, luxury lifestyles, large per-capita GHG emissions, and more. But Cohen concludes, as others have, that “America’s virtues—its creative churn, vitality, and energy,” and its innovative spirit, are inextricably linked to its vices.

The same appears to be true of the world’s use of fossil fuels. Many nations have focused too much on the virtues (real and apparent) of abundant, inexpensive energy, and not enough on the problems caused by burning fossil fuels (some of which, like coal mine deaths, and polluted air, have been tolerated in many places for more than a century). For a long time the world has embraced the tangled combination of virtue and vice in using fossil fuels, now including growing awareness of excess GHG emissions. In this matter the U.S. is not as exceptional as one wishes it were.

Is the United States to Blame for Climate Change? Part 2.

I presented an argument on this blog that the United States bears primary responsibility for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change. This post explores an alternative view, that responsibility for climate change is widely shared and therefore that the U.S. is no more to blame than other nations. The argument is based on these perspectives:

  • The industrial revolution, starting with the invention of the steam engine, began more than 200 years ago. As a result, industrial practices, economic policies, livelihoods, and people’s material expectations changed around the world before climate change was a concern. For centuries, and up to the present, most nations have shared one of the same goals as the United States: raising the standard of living of citizens in part based on burning coal, oil, and other fossil fuels.
  • In recent decades, plenty of nations have had poor records related to combating climate change. E.g., Christiana Figueres, who leads the U.N. Framework on Climate Change, recalls that the Saudis were “brilliant” in past climate change negotiations. “They would throw a wrench in here and get out of that room … then appear over in this other room, in which it was a completely unrelated issue, throw a wrench in there.” She added, “I don’t blame them. It’s very understandable [because of their ongoing income from oil reserves].” In fact, until 2015 virtually no leader in the Islamic world had called for action to combat climate change. As another example, Canada was part of the Kyoto Protocol but withdrew from the agreement effective in 2012. Also, a conservative government in Australia—the fourth largest coal-producing nation in the world—repealed its carbon tax in 2014, and then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott was said to be “in complete denial about climate change.” China has built about a thousand new coal-fired power plants—so many that “all of Europe’s [emissions] cuts were effectively cancelled out by a few months’ worth of emissions growth in China.” More examples could be provided.
  • There would almost surely be less progress combating climate change if President Obama and Secretary Kerry had not been working for many years with Chinese leaders and other governments to address the issue. Indeed, the U.S. has provided indispensable leadership on climate change for fifty years. E.g., MIT scientists were instrumental in producing the 1972 study The Limits to Growth, which argued that humanity needed to change course to avoid disaster. Earlier, the U.S. President’s Science Advisory Committee warned about the dangers of excess carbon dioxide in 1965—the first report to a national government about climate change. Former Vice President Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for his work on the problem, including his efforts in 1990 to establish a Global Marshall Fund to combat climate change, his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, and his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. Former NASA scientist James Hansen has been one of the most educated and outspoken voices on climate change since the late 1980s.
  • Current national pledges to reduce GHG emissions, made as a part of the U.N. framework process, represent long-awaited progress but are “not even close” to the level needed to keep global warming to a maximum of 2° C or less. Inadequate commitments to reduce emissions are not limited to any one nation.
  • The American economy (which provides about 22% of world economic output) is responsible for less GHG emission per dollar of output than the world average, and energy efficiency in the U.S. has increased since 1990.
  • American fossil fuel companies may have an awful history with respect to funding disinformation about combating climate change, but so do corporations based in other nations, such as British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. A German company, Volkswagen, recently admitted to blatantly lying about equipment supposedly installed to reduce pollution in 11 million diesel cars. Many huge corporations spread disinformation, not only American companies.
  • Naomi Klein, a fierce critic of unfettered capitalism and of fossil fuel companies, has written extensively on climate change, and in This Changes Everything she concludes that “humans have behaved in this shortsighted way [about climate change] not only under capitalist systems, but under systems that called themselves socialist as well”—and also in monarchies, as noted in a bullet above—and that “[climate change] is not a problem that can be blamed on the political right or on the United States.” She believes instead that responsibility for climate change is widely shared by many cultures and nations around the world.

These and other perspectives indicate that a reluctance to acknowledge the grave threat of climate change, as well as most nations’ slow progress to combat it, are widespread phenomena. Finding a villain or scapegoat may be satisfying; however, in this situation there seem to be too many responsible parties to single out only one.

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?

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.)


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.”


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.


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.