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Climate change debate is cleaved along ideological lines

No one wants sea levels to rise or droughts to increase, but this observation does not change the fact that without the obstruction of climate action, we would be in a very different place

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The science of climate change is clear. Scientists know that the Earth is warming and that humans are the reason. We also know that the Earth will continue to warm in the future. However, we can do something about it. We can dramatically change the trajectory. If the science is so clear, why are there still so many people who do not accept it? Why are there so many people who try to deny the evidence? I want to describe where things are, as I see them. Mind you, this is only my perspective, living in the United States, working on climate science and climate communication on a daily basis. For various reasons, acceptance of climate science breaks down along ideological lines.

First, a majority of people in every state in the US believes, for instance, that the Paris Accord is a good thing, that the US should participate. It turns out, however, that there is higher acceptance of climate science and acceptance of the importance of action on the coasts (California, Oregon, Washington, New York, etc.).

There are exceptions to this rule but I am generalising. It also turns out that the more liberal your politics are, the more likely you are to accept the science and the solutions. With respect to politics, the results are stunning. Vast majorities of Democratic and independent voters are supportive. Interestingly, small majorities of even conservative Republicans are supportive. There are other correlations. For instance, the more conservative someone is, the more likely they are to doubt or deny the science.

But again, this is a generalisation and it has exceptions. In fact, some religious leaders have become climate-action leaders. Perhaps the best example is Pope Francis. Now, I am not saying that conservatives are not as intelligent as liberals, I am just pointing out that certain political and religious ideologies correspond to viewpoints on science.

The correlations don’t end here. A hugely important work on the underlying motivations of people who deny the reality of climate change was performed by Dr Naomi Oreskes in her book (and accompanying movie) Merchants of Doubt. One of the central conclusions is that the denial of human-caused climate change is driven by people’s distrust of the government and of government solutions to a problem, particularly when the solutions may impinge on personal freedoms. While there is a clear relation between a scientist’s knowledge of climate change and his or her understanding of the human influence, such a relation is not apparent to the general public.

So, if you look far and wide to find a scientist who claims humans are not a major influence on climate, it is very likely that scientist is not very knowledgeable about the topic, does not work in the area very much, or has a history of faulty research. Conversely, the scientists who accept the consensus view are more likely to publish more, do more research and just know more. However, if you talk to people on the street, this view breaks down. US President Donald Trump has announced that America will withdraw from the Paris climate treaty. My view is, it would be better for the US to leave the agreement so that it cannot sabotage it from the inside.

Litmus test

Only time will tell.

But back to where this leaves us. There is a situation in the US and around the world, where certain countries and certain political groups have inextricably aligned themselves with one or another side of this issue.

For instance, in the US, denial of human-caused climate change has become a litmus test for Republican candidates. The same is true in other countries. This is a real tragedy because Republicans don’t want to pollute the planet. They don’t want to ruin things for our future generations. But, their wholesale denial of the reality of climate change is doing just that.

From a political standpoint, if we think about the things Trump is doing and how it will affect the world, the one thing he may be most remembered for is his climate inaction. Climate change will have very long-lasting consequences that we will be dealing with long after he is gone. Long after other issues like immigration, economy, debt, jobs, terrorism, or new words like “covfefe” have passed from our minds, the implications of our climate effect will linger. Frankly, no challenge we are facing (except perhaps a potential nuclear war) presents the consequences that climate change does. And this, sadly, will be the legacy of conservatives in America. As we wake up to more severe weather, more droughts, heat waves, rising seas, severe storms, the world will remember that these issues could have been solved long ago but for an ideology and tribalism. It will be the job of scientists, historians and the media to continually remind people of this. Climate change could have been solved. Those who will be blamed will certainly claim “But I didn’t cause this climate change. You cannot blame this on me!”

But we can and we have to. People need to be accountable for their actions. If you are someone who has stood in the path of climate action, you own the results. And that is the sad part. Because as I mentioned earlier, this means a significant part of the population will be tarred with the legacy of climate change. And that population does not, as a rule, want the climate to change.

Obstruction of action

No one wants sea levels to rise or droughts to increase, but this observation does not change the fact that without the obstruction of climate action, we would be in a very different place.

Another sad result is that the US has become a pariah — it has gone from leader to obstructionist on climate change. This saddens me.

What is ironic is that many of the people who deny human-caused climate change are the same people who live and breathe so-called “patriotism”.

However, this patriotism has become a “my country right or wrong” parochial slogan that is anything but patriotic. To call your country what it is, to be honest about its strengths and its shortcomings, to work to make your country better, to never settle for status quo — all that is patriotic. And as a patriot, I am deeply saddened by my country’s — America’s — lack of leadership on this important issue. And as a patriot, I will hope for, and work for change.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Dr John Abraham is a professor of thermal sciences. He researches in climate monitoring and renewable energy generation for the developing world. His energy development work has extended to Africa, South America and Asia.

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