Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance by TheGiantVermin, on Flickr

On April 6, all but one of the Republican members of the US House of Representatives rejected a Democratic amendment that would have put the chamber on record backing the widely held scientific view that global warming is occurring and humans are a major cause.  The following day the GOP-led House voted 255 to 172 to strip the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gases.  It is remarkable that in 2011,  a majority of Republicans in Congress reject the indisputable, scientific consensus that human activity is altering the climate.

Why are conservatives, despite the mounting evidence, so unwilling to accept that climate change is a serious threat caused by greenhouse emissions?  It seems climate change is now part and parcel of America’s “culture wars.”  Similar to abortion and other social issues, climate change has become a partisan issue, with liberals backing the science, and conservatives denying it.  Often times, when pondering the reasons for climate change denial, we immediately blame the media for allotting disproportionate airtime for industry backed psuedo-scientists to sow doubt in the minds of viewers, in their quest for “balance.”  Of course this analysis is correct, but incomplete.

It’s been widely proven that fossil fuel interests, most notably ExxonMobil, used the tobacco industry’s playbook and an extensive arsenal of lobbyists and “experts” to manufacture disinformation designed to confuse the public and stifle action to address climate change.  As documented by Greenpeace, in recent years this corporate PR campaign has gone viral, spawning a denial movement that is largely immune to reasoned response.  While the more powerful climate change deniers have manipulative objectives, such as preserving their vested interests in fossil fuels or political posturing with their constituencies, many on the right actually believe climate change is a hoax.  This PR campaign has contributed immensely to denial, but there is still more to the story.

Thus, the question remains:  Why is the reality of climate change such a threat to the right?  A new study published in the Spring 2011 issue of Sociological Quarterly delves into this very topic.  The study finds that conservatives’ refusal to acknowledge the very real threat of climate change, has more to do with its implications rather than skepticism of scientific facts.  It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance!

Stanford University social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the theory of cognitive dissonance, based on a famous case study from the 1950s.  Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated a cult that was awaiting what they believed would be the imminent end of the world on December 21, 1954.  When the prediction failed, rather than recognize the error of their beliefs, the cult members’ faith grew stronger, so strong that they began to proselytize.  People will go to great lengths to rationalize their deeply held beliefs, even more so when exposed to evidence that challenges their worldview.

Climate change poses a profound threat to many things that right-wing ideologues believe in. Conservatives tend to champion individual freedom, private property rights, small government, free markets, and above all else, unfettered industrial capitalism.   Industrial capitalism is an economic system predicated on the accelerating extraction and consumption of fossil fuels for energy, which is driving the climate change we face today. To accept this basic premise, one is compelled to question the wisdom of capitalism itself, which is a terrifying notion for conservatives.  And it doesn’t take long to recognize that conservative values are inherently antithetical to the desperately needed actions to tackle global climate change.

Seriously dealing with the threat of climate change would require government to heavily regulate corporations and subsidize renewable energy.   It would entail a strong international body, most likely boosting the power of the UN.  It would bring an end to the inefficient and energy-wasting free-trade agenda, as localizing economies would become necessary to sustain communities.  And, most importantly, confronting climate change demands addressing climate justice for developing nations suffering from the pollution of industrialized nations, or more simply, a redistribution of wealth from North to South.  Climate change poses a direct threat to the spread of free markets, the maintenance of national sovereignty, and the continued abolition of governmental regulations, all key components of the conservative agenda.  These are the types of ideas that cause conservatives to gasp, point, and shout “communist!”

When we recognize the role of cognitive dissonance, it becomes clear that conservatives and Republicans are more likely to dispute or deny the scientific consensus and the claims of the environmental community, in order to defend the industrial capitalist system.  It is far more simple to deny science, than to accept that one’s worldview is wrong.  Unfortunately, environmental organizations are in a kind of denial as well.  Climate change is about an economic model that demands infinite growth on a finite planet.  However, environmental groups are reluctant to relate climate change to economics and politics, probably because conservatives would see it as confirmation of the right-wing myth that global warming is a socialist plot to redistribute the world’s wealth.

For a conservative whose entire identity is defined by faith in the economics of capitalism and free markets, acceptance of climate change poses a danger to their sense of self, and will be avoided at all costs.  Therefore, attempts to persuade this portion of the country with science and logic is a lost cause. However, for those of us who truly care about the future of our one and only planet and our species, it is time that we face what we have been loath to highlight in the past:  Unfettered industrial capitalism is unsustainable and is causing climate change to spiral out of control.  Until we begin to challenge the economics fueling environmental degradation, we are no better than our climate denying counterparts.