John Quiggin and other vigilant bloggers swarmed on this climate change ‘denialist’ article by American historian Arthur Herman, who was in Australia recently as a guest of the CIS (to talk about the Enlightenment rather than climate change).
Quiggin argues that ‘just about everyone on the political right [has signed] up to a set of beliefs that are dictated entirely by political tribalism’.
This is a little tough but tribalistic explanations surely explain much – on both sides of the debate. Very few people are in any position to assess the science, and so the issue has to be judged via various heuristics, such as expert views, personal observation and experience (a long drought), and the views of other members of one’s social group. These heuristics help explain why an emissions trading scheme has majority support despite minimal public knowledge of even what it is, much less an informed personal assessment of whether or not it is likely to work.
It would not have been hard to guess what preconceptions someone like Arthur Herman would bring to this issue. In the 1990s he published a book called The Idea of Decline in Western History, which gives us 400 pages of prophets of doom before it even gets to environventalism. To Herman, the climate change apocalyptics must look like just another in a long line of doomsayers, with the same (minimal) prospects of being proven right.
Similarly, it would not have been hard to guess what line cultural pessimists like Clive Hamilton would take – though he, like many climate change sceptics, is an economist by training, not a meteorologist. Climate change is a gift for the cultural pessimists who have long believed that materialistic Western societies are morally and spiritually empty, and we must return to more ascetic lives in touch with our true selves and with nature. With climate change, Hamilton and the other cultural pessimists at last could add some scientific respectability to their views.
The tribal intellectual and activist right saw what the cultural pessmists were doing with this issue, and have so devoted great energy to identifying and publicising any scientific evidence contrary to the doomsday consensus. Unfortunately for the tribal right, the intellectual shortcuts they have used are unknown to most people, even to most right-of-centre voters, and so in public opinion climate change scepticism is a hopelessly lost cause – at least until a prolonged period of cool weather brings the public’s personal observation and experience into contradiction with the predictions of climate apocalyptics.