The Politicization of Global Warming
Mar 12, 2011

The Politicization of Global Warming

The question of global warming has both a political and a scientific side to it. The scientific side addresses the veracity of various claims such as its existence, causes, future projections and its consequences given various actions. The political side asks what policies we should put in place given the information of science and our various values.

There is a tendency to want to decouple these two things from each other. However, the reality is in the public consciousness there already exists a significant coupling between the science and the politics; moreover, one side is doing a much better job of this than the other.

Over the course of the last decade, public belief in the veracity of global warming as a scientific fact has been politicized in the sense that a majority of the left thinks it is true and a majority of the right thinks it is false. It is a self identifying characteristic of many partisans. Public belief in scientific claims is not just a function of the scientific certainty but also is highly dependent on the politics.

Unfortunately, the politicization of this issue is not even. The left has, to its detriment, largely treated global warming as an entirely separate issue from other political issues - stemming I think from the reasonable idea to treat science as decoupled from politics and that the veracity of global warming stands or falls on scientific grounds, not political ones.  Scientific facts are largely inaccessible for independent public scrutiny; for most people the best that can be done is to establish consensus among scientists. As such it is the political motivations that really grip people.

The right, on the other hand has very closely tied the two concepts together. Belief in global warming is seen as an attempt for big government takeovers, regulations, taxes, strong international agreements and the like all of which are ideologically opposed.  It is an inherently political debate going on and explains why belief in global warming is such a partisan thing with a large number of people wildly in defiance of the scientific consensus. While the left argues we should fight for global warming because of the effects of global warming, the right argues we shouldn't fight - and indeed that the phenomenon doesn't exist or is overstated - because of political reasons such as variations on the themes of big government and restricting freedom.

The right is actually entirely justified in their fears. All of these political factors mentioned quickly follow from accepting the need to act. Global warming represents an enormous externality on market transactions and it is very natural that some form of fiat policies to compensate for this externality ought to occur. Of course, the precise nature of the solutions requires extensive debate and consideration, and certainly government solutions are not everything but it seems very likely they ought to play at least some role. There is thus a certain cognitive dissonance that occurs when one ideologically rejects policies the involve government intervention but believe in a theory that seems to so clearly require government intervention to mitigate. This pressure at least partially explains the partisan disbelief in global warming.

I believe there should be a shift in the framing of the global debate that widens it from being merely a scientific question but instead to a wider political question that aims to combat sole of the larger and more general issues at the same time. Right or wrongly, the global warming debate has become politicized and one side is asymmetrically winning this framing. This isn't to say global warming is never a political issue for the left, it is. Dion's Liberals in Canada, for example, ran - and lost - on an election platform centered around global warming. However, it didn't try to tie in global warming to any other issue and this was a political debate about global warming in and of itself.

Take the issue of campaign finance reform. This is a much broader issue often supported by progressives that tries to limit the relative amount of corporate money which infiltrates the political scene. It affects issues from the military/industrial complex to the financial system to corporate pollution. In particular, it extensively affects the politics of global warming because of the pervasive existence of campaign dollars and lobbying money from fossil fuel lobbies and other corporations that are heavy on pollution. Along with the ideological cognitive dissonance mentioned above, the denial of global warming as requiring political action or even as a scientific fact is at least partly explained by the existence of this powerful lobby. The left can thus broaden the political debate about global warming to include these kind of issues, advocating for systems that reduce the relative monetary dependence on corporate influence so as to help not just global warming issues but all sorts of other issues. It makes it possible for there to be considerable alliances between different advocacy groups and to present a larger, more all encompassing political platform that self reinforces itself.

I have previously talked about how global warming should be reframed in tandem with issues of peak oil and cheap energy depletion. This is an example of expanding the debate to a slightly larger political context. One can advocate for global warming as part of an economic policy that acknowledges that green energy is going to be an area of future economic growth and that it makes good economic sense with a high return on investment to invest in green energy. Intergenerational justice and various equality movements are all typically left wing strengths that can be tapped into on this issue as well.

In short, there are a plethora of different way one can integrate global warming as part of a larger political platform and not as simple a single, isolated plank of a political platform. The right has been quite successful at doing this by maintaining - sometimes with complete strawmen - how belief in global warming ties into various ideological positions that are supported by the right. This kind of reframing can and should occur if one aims to win the debate for the public opinion of global warming. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

Share this post:

Tweet It! Facebook Add Feed Reddit! Digg It! Stumble Delicious Follow

Post a Comment

Frequent Topics: