2013-07-31

Those Other Creatures Who Believe Different Things

Salon.com recently republished a Geoff Dembicki article from a Canadian website called The Tyee, entitled "How to talk to a conservative about climate change" [sic on capitalization] (hat tip to Lubos Motl). It is a profoundly insulting display of the vexing tendency of typical partisans to view their political opponents as being a completely different species. 

The whole piece is written from the perspective of a global warming alarmist who has never even attempted to speak to a conservative about climate change without pressing his agenda and becoming argumentative. I say this not because Dembicki doesn't share my personal viewpoint on the topic, but because it is clear from his article - replete with citations to academic studies about the differences between the liberal species and the conservative species - that Dembicki has never bothered to actually pay attention to the specific concerns conservatives have with global warming alarmism and think of ways to reason against them. Instead, Dembicki sticks to tired tropes about conservatives, those misguided fools who must be spoken to in a special language, like dogs.

The frustrating part of the piece is that Dembicki starts with all the right facts before proceeding to warp them into his insulting and self-serving narrative. After informing us that less than half of Britons "firmly believe" that human activity is causing climate change, and only 58% of Canadians agree with the statement that "global warming is a fact and is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities," Dembicki supplies a batch of rather sound insight:
Activists, scientists and politicians similarly convinced by climate science have long struggled to explain why such large segments of society dismiss the urgency of global warming. 
Those observers often blame a self-interested public, manipulated by powerful fossil fuel interests to believe the economic costs of fighting climate change outweigh its environmental consequences. 
But a growing body of social science research has revealed an unexpected counter-narrative: for two decades the language, narratives and images of global warming have reinforced deeply held liberal values, it argues. Conservatives now see global warming solutions, and the science itself, as attacks on values they hold dear.
If the article ended there, all would be fine. Unfortunately, Dembicki is just getting started. He goes off the rails with his very first assumption: "we're all a little irrational." And by "we all," Dembicki really means just conservatives. I say this because he explicitly frames the point in the language of "logical liberal" versus "crazy conservative." Look (emphases mine):
...For instance [a typical leftist statement about climate change might be]: “Alberta oil sands firms are not held accountable (fairness/cheating) for their contribution to a warming climate that will ultimately harm the planet’s poorest people (care/harm).” 
The logical left-wing reaction is to demand strict limits on oil sands emissions. But that climate change solution can provoke strong emotional reactions from people who identify as politically right-wing.
To be fair, Dembicki does suggest that "liberals need to first recognize their own moral biases," but his self-awareness on this point is astoundingly deficient. We see more evidence of this shortcoming in his next point, which is ostensibly that information is rarely neutral:
So when liberals learn, for instance, that human activity is warming the planet, they’re already morally primed to believe that oil sands firms and other fossil fuel companies must reduce their carbon emissions. 
But conservatives, who might feel these companies support the Canadian way of life, may go out of their way to reject any information undermining this belief, including the fact that human activity is warming the planet. 
“Once someone connects a position on an issue to their cultural identity,” Hoffman said, “to try and get them to accept something that contradicts that identity is really challenging.”
That unique animal that is a conservative apparently can only believe that climate change is a threat to tradition. It simply cannot be that the conservative has a differently but equally informed view of climate science, and perhaps more importantly, economics. By depicting all conservative objections to climate change as emotional responses tied to "loyalty" and "upholding long-held institutions," Dembicki dismisses every legitimate objection that exists against global warming alarmism.

In writing an article that is ostensibly about how liberals can persuade conservatives, Dembicki manages to dismiss every belief about climate change that doesn't line up to his own by calling it all an emotional reaction. He further underscores this dismissal in his next point, that "too much fear will backfire," and his other two points, which are tied primarily to culture.

Considering all of the above, is it any wonder that people like Dembicki have trouble communicating with conservatives?

Throughout the article, Dembicki's goal seems to be something much different than persuading conservatives to believe the majoritarian view of climate science. Remember? That's what he was lamenting at the beginning of the article. Instead, what Dembicki really has in mind is figuring out what language to use to adopt Dembicki's pet policy prescriptions. The idea that a conservative might agree about the science, but not the policy prescriptions, apparently has failed to even enter into his mind. As Lubos Motl puts it:
Even if you managed to invent a climatism that is meant to resemble a right-wing ideology, it couldn't lead to results that would be satisfactory for the left-wing climate alarmists. Why? Because for the hypothetical right-wing climatism to be really acceptable to right-wingers, it would have to fundamentally differ in certain respects and these differences would make the left-wing alarmists hate the new "right-wing alarmists" at least as much as the left-wing alarmists hate the climate realists in the real world.
Keep in mind that leftists and rightists generally agree that the poor need to be cared for, but generally disagree about how best to care for them. Similarly, despite the claims of both parties, Democrats and Republicans alike believe in the US Constitution; what matters is not a belief in the Constitution, but the specifics about how to interpret it within a given context.

But, while liberals are totally wrong to suggest that conservatives don't care about pollution or caring for the poor, conservatives are generally correct that liberals don't care about economic freedom. In the conservative point of view, economic freedom is a constraint to take into consideration when devising new public policies. In the leftist point of view, economic freedom (the "unfettered free market") is a barrier to achieving leftist policy goals. Here's Motl again:
The real problem is that Marxism may be smelled in pretty much every paragraph of the actual climate alarmism we know. The real-world climate alarmism as we know it is a mutation of socialism or Marxism. Climate alarmism is just an environmentally sounding name but the detailed content of the package you buy with it is a reorganized socialism or Marxism. And socialism or Marxism, however reorganized, can't ever be happy with people who realize that these ideologies are pernicious, whether or not these people use climatic labels for themselves.
Well, Lubos writes with his own set of personal biases, but that doesn't detract from the truth of his point, namely, "that the purpose of climate alarm is not to care about the environment but to rebuild the [sic] human society."

The left should be honest about this. The goal is not to simply save the Earth, but rather to save it in a specific way. If there were a way to extract oil in an environment-neutral way, leftists would still oppose it because what they really have in mind is rebuilding society into one that uses less high technology and more non-mechanical subsistence farming. They want fewer Walmarts and more co-op corner stores. Fewer NASCAR competitions and more bicycle races. What the left can't understand about the right amounts to nothing more than, "Why can't conservatives think all the same stuff we do and have all the same interests we have?"

This is silly. Conservatives know it's possible to have a good, happy life behaving more like a liberal. They know they would still smile if they dressed in earth tones, lived in Vermont, and worked as college professors. The reason they would rather dress in team jerseys, live in Texas, and manage auto parts stores is because they're just that much happier doing that instead. This is no cause for a culture war. Diversity of interests is to be celebrated for the many different strengths we all bring to society. One of the reasons socialism tends to fail is because it produces a society with too-narrow a set of interests. At the end of the day, somebody has to ranch. We can't all become vegans in Vermont who own coffee shops. Society needs all the stuff it produces; if it didn't, we wouldn't produce it.

But these concepts don't really jive in the minds of leftists who feel that non-leftists should just be different. Well, that's not a problem of our scientific comprehension.