If We Could Fix Climate Change With a Flick of a Switch, Will It be More Palatable to Conservatives?

Geoengineering might get more conservatives to believe in global warming – and I’m not sure that’s a good thing

As the consequences of climate change become increasingly obvious (you know, floods, fires, and droughts), it’s becoming more and more difficult for conservatives to dismiss global warming out-of-hand. Yes, the folks at The Heartland Institute are still plugging along (thanks for sending me your recent book, fellows). But – outside the shrinking band of dead-enders – self-described conservatives are beginning to acknowledge that man-made climate change is real and will require action. A recent Gallup poll found that more than half of Republicans now acknowledge the existence of global warming, up from 39 percent in 2011.

On Thursday Earth Island Journal and Grist are co-sponsoring a debate on geoengineering at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. Get your tickets here.

Having long denied the problem exists and squandered precious time to mitigate it, some conservatives now say it’s too late to do anything about climate change. This is what a former Obama White House official has called “the sophisticated objection” to taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Or as Stephen Colbert explained the situation earlier this year in his signature style: “It’s high time we stop denying the problem and resign ourselves to each day getting worse.”

In short, decades of delay and geopolitical gridlock have become an excuse for inaction and fatalism.

That’s bad enough. It’s sort of like letting part of your house catch fire and then saying there’s no reason to call 911 because, hey, the neighbors aren’t calling the fire department, either. Might as well let ‘er burn.

But I have another worry. I’m concerned that, with global atmospheric CO2 concentrations having topped 400 ppm (the highest in at least 800,000 years), conservatives will begin to say we have no choice but to embrace atmospheric geoengineering: technologies that will manipulate the entire planet by either blocking some sunlight from hitting Earth and/or finding ways to modify plants or the oceans to suck up vast amounts of carbon dioxide.

artwork depicting a disembodied hand applying a wrench to the sun in the skyMy anxiety is based on an interesting study published last year by Yale’s Dan Kahan and other researchers. Kahan and his colleagues wanted to test what’s called the “cultural cognition thesis.” This is the idea (fairly well documented by now) that most of us base our opinions – not on evidence or rational thought – but on factors like the beliefs of our peer group, our existing ideological frames, and our concept of values. Or, to mangle a complex scientific hypothesis and put it into lay terms: Conservatives are skeptical of climate change because they think Al Gore is a fat doofus, while progressives are skeptical of unfettered gun ownership because they think Rush Limbaugh is a fat doofus. No matter how rational we think we are, each of us perceives the world through the veil of our own biases.

Kahan et. al. wanted to test how individuals’ opinions about the risk of climate change are influenced by (among other things) whether they have heard of geoengineering. The researchers found that when given information about geoengineering, conservatives were more likely to accept information about climate change as real; at the same time, learning about geoengineering made liberals less likely to accept information about climate change. The science journalist Chris Mooney – who has made a career out of parsing the cultural cognition thesis – has a smart take here about the liberal side of the equation. I’m more interested in the conservative viewpoint because, as I said, I think geoengineering promotion is going to be the next stage of conservative talking points after climate fatalism. I’m pretty sure that someday soon we will witness conservatives clamoring for geoengineering as a preferred alternative to making our economies less carbon-intensive. The line will go something like this: “There’s nothing we can do to slash greenhouse gas emissions, so we might as well hack the sky.”

(At least one prominent conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, is already working on this argument. AEI fellow Sam Thernstrom has written opinion pieces for The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times promoting geoengineering as a possible “solution” for global warming.)

CORRECTION: Thernstrom strongly disputes this characterization of this his work. In fact, as he wrote in The Los Angeles Times, geoengineering “is neither a permanent nor a perfect solution to warming.” A detailed clarification of his position on geoengineering, including links to his writings, is below. We regret the error and apologize for the mischaracterization of his opinion.

Recent research has revealed that there are real differences between the brains of self-described liberals and self-described conservatives. Liberals are, in general, more open-minded and interested in new ideas. Conservatives place higher value on orderliness and hierarchy. Liberals are more communitarian while conservatives are more individualistic. These predispositions help explain why conservatives would be more willing to accept climate change science if they have first learned about geoengineering. Here’s how Kahan and his colleagues explain it: “The geoengineering news story … linked climate-change science to cultural meanings – of human ingenuity and of overcoming natural limits on commerce and industry – that at least partially offset the threat that crediting such information would normally pose to the identity of Hierarchical Individualists [conservatives].” Or, in simpler terms: the technological quick-fix promised by geoengineering conforms to conservatives’ belief in humanity’s dominion over nature. At the very least, it’s preferable to making sweeping changes in our society and economy – changes that would likely have to be driven by some kind of government action. Geoengineering is attractive to conservatives because it offers the promise of being able to continue business as usual.

I’ve been tracking the geoengineering debate for years, and it scares the bejeebers out of me. The science of planetary manipulation might be air-tight, but everything else about it is half-baked. The geopolitics of the thing are messy: Who, for example, would control the global thermostat if, say, Russia wanted it warmer and India wanted it cooler? The ethics are also squishy: What if some people benefit from planetary manipulation while others suffer? Most worrisome is the long-term bind into which it would put all of humanity. Once we start manipulating the atmosphere, we won’t be able to stop, because then temperatures would spike back up.

As I wrote in an Earth Island Journal cover story some time ago: “As geo-engineering proponents acknowledge, schemes like sulfur aerosol address only the symptoms, not the source, of global climate change. That fact betrays our society’s bias for the techno-fix, the seemingly easy way out. Seemingly – because geo-engineering is the most complicated strategy we could pursue. It takes a problem, simplifies its cause, and then exaggerates its solution. It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine, employing eight or nine steps when one or two would do. Instead of pursuing the elegant solutions – trading in our cars for buses, turning off the coal and turning on the wind – we are going to build a contraption to make the clouds shinier.”

In the course of reporting that story, AEI’s Thernstrom told me that one of the virtues of geoengineering is its centralized control. While unilateral emissions reductions are pointless, unilateral geo-engineering could work. Any industrial power could likely do it on its own.

CORRECTION: Thernstrom also disputes this characterization of his position. He writes: “I have never argued for unilateral geoengineering—I have always believed that a significant degree of international consensus around [geoengineering] would be needed for deployment, and that the decision to deploy would inevitably be made in the United Nations.” Again, we regret the mischaracterization.

OK. But I have to wonder: If conservatives don’t trust the federal government to manage our health care system, why would they trust the federal government to manage the entire sky?

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