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James Taranto: The Climate Shrinks

James Taranto, The Wall Street Journal

Global warmists have a problem, which they hope to solve through therapy – for others.

“If there weren’t such a stark divide between American conservatives and almost everyone else on the question of the existence and importance of climate change–a divide that can approach 40 points on some polling questions–the political situation would be very different,” writes New York magazine’s Jesse Singal. Warmists need a way of “convincing a lot of conservatives that yes, climate change is a threat to civilization.” Achieving that objective “has more to do with psychology than politics.”

How many psychologists does it take to change a conservative’s light bulb? Only one–but the conservative has to want it to change.

Our reference to therapy was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. What Singal has in mind isn’t individual treatment but mass psychology–i.e., propaganda. His argument is that “the climate activist community” has “failed to understand” that “messages targeting conservatives” should be “radically different” from those aimed at liberals. He advises warmists to draw on frameworks from social and political psychology, such as ”moral foundations theory” and “system justification.” That ought to make it possible for them to develop methods to promulgate correct beliefs–or, as he puts it, “to nudge conservatives toward recognizing the issue.”

We’d say all this is unlikely to amount to anything–not because we doubt that the underlying psychological theories have some merit, but rather because Singal and the psychologists he quotes are laughably biased in their understanding of the “problem.”

Singal actually shows a glimmer of understanding in this to-be-sure paragraph, which ends with a quote from Dan Kahan, a Yale professor of both law and psychology:

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that for many conservatives (and liberals), the current debate about climate change isn’t really about competing piles of evidence or about facts at all–it’s about identity. Climate change has come to serve as shorthand for which side you’re on, and conservatives tend to be deeply averse to what climate crusaders represent (or what they think they represent). “The thing most likely to make it hard to sway somebody is that you’re trying to sway them,” said Kahan.

There is considerable wisdom in that Kahan quote. Who hasn’t had the experience of being put off by hard-sell persuasion techniques, whether in commerce, politics, religion or personal affairs? On the other hand, if one takes Kahan at his word, it calls the whole enterprise into question, does it not?

Singal is also correct to observe that attitudes about so-called climate change are often a matter of “identity.” He even acknowledges that is true of liberals as well as conservatives–but whereas he sees the latter as a problem to be overcome, the former is a mere parenthetical. The implicit assumption is that identity-based viewpoints are problematic only inasmuch as they are “incorrect”–counter to global-warmist orthodoxy.

To an orthodox global-warmist, that makes perfect sense. But it leads Singal to misapprehend the state of public opinion. Consider his claim that there is “a stark divide between American conservatives and almost everyone else on the question.” Is that really an accurate description? […]

One could say there is a “stark divide” between those who take global warmism as seriously as Holthaus does and “the rest of us.” Or one could place the divide on this side of those who profess to take it seriously, like Singal and Kahan, but (we’re assuming) do not practice Holthaus-like self-denial.

The Pew poll to which Singal links offers some support for that latter view. It finds that while 61% of Americans agree that there is “solid evidence that the earth has been warming,” only a plurality (48%) think “global climate change” constitutes a “major threat” to the U.S. (Another 30% think it’s a “minor threat.”) And such surveys tell you nothing about the prevalence of true belief in global warmism. Surely some substantial portion of the 48% is the result of deference to authority rather than deep conviction–and thus is unlikely to translate into political support for costly measures that promise to promote climate stasis. […]

Another Pew poll finds that 78.4% of Americans are Christian and only 16.1% have no religious affiliation. The latter category breaks down as follows: 1.6% atheist, 2.4% agnostic, 6.3% “secular unaffiliated” and 5.8% “religious unaffiliated.”

Suppose someone from the “religious right” looked at those figures, concluded there’s a “stark divide” between the unaffiliated (or the nonreligious) and “the rest of us,” and proposed an effort, informed by social and political psychology, to convince the former of the merits of enacting conservative social policies. The fallaciousness of those assumptions should be obvious–and likewise for Singal’s assumption of a broad consensus that “climate change is a threat to civilization.”

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