Those engaged in efforts to enlighten climate deniers can learn a great deal from the long history of the anti-evolution movement. Almost one hundred years ago this month, a young high school teacher by the name of John Thomas Scopes went on trial for teaching Darwinian evolution. To this day, the science of evolution has been under siege.
Climate denial is like resistance to evolution in that it is an irrational position rooted in faith rather than facts. Although those who resist evolution and those who deny climate change are often intellectually vacuous, the web of lies they weave is surprisingly pernicious.
It took 44 years to get the highest U.S. court to rule in favor of evolution (in 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an Arkansas statute outlawing the teaching of evolution). Despite this ruling and the wealth of scientific evidence, resistance to evolution persists.
The U.S. holds the ignominious distinction of being a world leader for both its resistance to evolution and rejection of climate change. According to a Reuters poll, 33 percent of U.S. citizens reject evolution and an Ipsos poll found that 32 percent of Americans do not believe in anthropogenic climate change.
Incognizance endures in the face of an overwhelming body of evidence. We should not underestimate the obstinacy and determination of those who belligerently ignore the facts. These people are steeped in an aggressive form of ignorance that forms a world view which is not easily undone. Some climate deniers revel in their opposition to science and spitefully go out of their way to be environmentally destructive.
The reflexive and irrational opposition to climate science is illustrated by a small fringe group known as "coal rollers." As a means of protesting U.S. clean air regulations, these people are modifying their diesel trucks so that they spew thick plumes of black smoke.
Owners of these trucks not only despise President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, they also hate people who drive fuel efficient vehicles. As one of the coal rollers explained, “that’s my way of giving them the finger.” Adding angrily, “you want clean air and a tiny carbon footprint? Well, screw you.”
While coal rollers may be a fringe element, there are a number of elected officials in the U.S. that are also passionate supporters of climate denial. It is no secret that the legislative deadlock on climate change and clean energy is largely attributable to the denial of Congressional Republicans.
As revealed in a Think Progress article, almost 60 percent of Republicans in Congress are climate deniers. Over 56 percent (133 members) of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives deny the basic tenets of climate science and 65 percent (30 members) of the Senate Republican caucus deny man-made climate change.
Even more alarming is the fact that 90 percent of the leading Republican decision makers in both the House and the Senate are climate deniers. The majority of Republicans on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology are climate deniers, as are most of those on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. All of the Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have said climate change is not happening or that humans are not the cause.
Economy and jobs
While most Republicans are reflexively obstructionist, others acknowledge that combating climate change is an engine for growth that enhances the nation's global competitiveness and provides jobs. The tremendous economic and employment opportunities associated with climate change mitigation and adaptation are evident in the growing levels of investment. Annual investments in the global clean energy market alone could reach $230 billion a year in 2020 and as much as $424 billion in 2030.
Dollar for dollar, studies show that cleantech investments provide four times the jobs of fossil fuels. Currently, cleantech is seeing job growth which is two and a half times that of traditional jobs. With people clamoring for economic growth and hungry for jobs, deniers who seek public office risk alienating voters.
Conservatives want solar too
Many conservatives support greener energy and in red states across America, the demand for renewable energy is growing. To illustrate the point, Republicans in the Peach state recently voted in favor of an ambitious solar energy plan. The new law requires that Atlanta-based Georgia Power Co. increase its solar power capacity by 525 megawatts within two and a half years. What makes this decision noteworthy is the fact that it was supported by an unprecedented coalition of conservative lawmakers and the Tea Party. Support for rooftop solar is another green initiative that is getting support from red states like Arizona and Idaho.
Failure to find fault
Climate deniers are quick to point to even the smallest errors in climate science. Deniers are not moved by scientific consensus, they prefer to side with outliers. However, it is getting harder to find sane scientists capable of any sort of cogent rebuttal. Even scientists who were previously deniers are being forced to recant under the weight of the evidence.
Let them go
If only the weight of the evidence were enough to break the back of climate denial. In the Scopes trial, the prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan was humiliated and ridiculed for his foolish beliefs. Five days after the judge ruled, Bryan lay down and died. While climate deniers are highly susceptible to ridicule, they are unlikely to die as quickly or as conveniently as Bryan.
Eighty nine years after the Scopes trial there are still more than a hundred million Americans who oppose evolution. There are also a similar number of Americans who dismiss climate science. Many are unreachable as their attitudes are articles of faith that are not easily uprooted.
While there are many parallels that can be drawn between those who are opposed to evolution and those who deny the existence of climate change, there are also some salient differences. The chief difference is that questioning the validity of evolution does not threaten life on a planetary scale. With atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide surpassing 400 ppm, we are on track for a 9 degree temperature increase by the end of the century.
We may never be able to convert deniers and we simply do not have the time. The long history of the anti-evolution movement forces us to concede that there will always be Luddites who support profoundly irrational positions. Rather than waste energy trying to enlighten climate deniers, we should relegate climate them to their rightful place on the lunatic fringe.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
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