The sociology of the climate change debate

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.

61 thoughts on “The sociology of the climate change debate

  1. “climate science should be evaluated on its own terms”

    I agree, but I don’t have the training to do that. That is for others to do. My role as a citizen and a voter is to assess the likely efficacy of government action, and to reflect this in the ballot box.
    My BS detector goes off when someone, who just happens to be a lefty conservationist, tells me that the only solution to this current problem just happens to look a lot like socialist redistribution of wealth and dark green conservationism.
    That’s not an argument about the science (which I’m not qualified to assess), but simply a statement about how I will use my vote.


  2. “look a lot like socialist redistribution of wealth”

    Which is exactly my point about

    “dealt themselves out of the discussions on what to do about AGW”.

    There is nothing redistributionist about climate change mitigation as such. Of course, if by shutting your eyes, and chanting “nyah nyah I don’t believe in AGW” you vacate the field to the Greens, then socialist redistribution of wealth is what you might get. The choice is yours.


  3. I disagree. Bjørn Lomborg receives as much, if not more, abuse than many fanatic AGW-deniers. He doesn’t deny the science of AGW, he merely disagrees with the optimum response to it.

    In my opinion, and as Andrew alludes to in his post, much of the tribalism of AGW opinion revolves around the proposed solutions, and not to the actual science.


  4. “much of the tribalism of AGW opinion revolves around the proposed solutions, and not to the actual science.”

    If you really think this, have a Captain Cook around the denialist web sites. They just deny the science (“heat islands”, “it’s warming on Uranus”, “the temperature peaked in 1998”, “scientists are making it up to get funding”).

    “Bjørn Lomborg”

    How did you type the o with the slash through it?


  5. copy/paste from wikipedia 🙂

    “denialist web sites”

    No doubt. But when your government responds to a crisis in a way that goes against your politics, you are going to search for reasons to disagree. For a lefty example, look at some of the truther sites, that go to extraordinary lengths to ‘prove’ that 9/11 was an inside job to provoke a war with the middle east.

    Further, and this is why I brought up nuclear power, if the proposed solutions for global warming did not fit so neatly with socialist left doctrine, I doubt the left/right tribalism would be so distinct.


  6. “if the proposed solutions for global warming did not fit so neatly with socialist left doctrine”

    There’s nothing in the Green Paper that comes within a bull’s roar of socialist left doctrine. In fact, it’s the opposite, such as various handouts it proposes to give to coal.

    “truther sites”

    I agree. The climate change denialists have much in common with various conspiracy theorists. Not just 9/11 related, also the fake moon landings, Princess Di was murdered by MI6, Elvis Presley is still alive, you name it.


  7. “There’s nothing in the Green Paper that comes within a bull’s roar of socialist left doctrine”

    The government is instituting a new tax: this will be redistributed to the poor (“hardest hit”), used to protect Australian industries that are exposed to global markets, and used to subsidise ‘winners’ that have been picked by the government.


  8. “redistributed to the poor”

    Poor and middle actually, which on past form is an income of up to $150K per year, which includes everyone but the top 5%.

    “used to protect Australian industries that are exposed to global markets”

    True, but this is not socialist left doctrine. On the contrary, the standard far left argument in this case (see Green Left Weekly) is that if these industries, such as the coal industry, fold, then so much the better. (Not my view, I hasten to add.)

    “used to subsidise ‘winners’ that have been picked by the government.”

    Remains to be seen. I predict a big fight within the government on this. Interestingly, those with likely most to say for (Kim Carr) and against (Lindsay Tanner) are both in the Left faction.


  9. here’s a thing that intrigues me: what might be the reason why, in this modern world of internet publishing, there are to be found so very few sociological and anthropological studies on mankind’s impact on the environment? I mean: what is it with sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists? Are they all shell shocked by all the bad news that is coming out of the departments of the natural sciences? Have our social scientists already reached the conclusion that nothing very useful can ever be done to avert manmade ecological disaster anyway? – And that there is, for that very reason, no reason for any of them to put their scientific spectacles on, and look any further into the matter. I wonder: maybe the university departments of sociology and anthropology of this world have simply concluded that a look at the social/cultural dimensions underlying our current environmental stress only leads to research results that are useless in economic terms, as well as in political terms?

    At the conference “Risk and Response to Global Warming and Environmental Change: Lessons from Social Science Research,” Jan. 25 and 26, 2007, sociologist Jeffrey Broadbent said: “Most study of climate change has been from a natural science perspective. Much less attention has been paid to why governments, people, and societies don’t take this problem seriously. It’s a unique problem, global in scope. To solve it, we have to make deep changes in how we get our energy. The biggest obstacle is that people think in the short run.”

    Think renewables. Think fast. Think solar. – Simplicity it the rendezvous. – Reduce, recycle, and reduce.


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