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As hurricanes and wildfires rage, US climate politics enters the realm of farce

Climate denial is less credible, but more powerful, than ever.

NOVI, MI - MAY 3: Radio talk show host and conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh speaks at 'An Evenining With Rush Limbaugh' event May 3, 2007 in Novi, Michigan. The event was sponsored by WJR radio station as part of their 85th birthday celebration fest
“Bottled water stocks. Mark my words.”
(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

On Tuesday afternoon, as Southern Floridians nervously watched Hurricane Irma become a Category 5 monster, they received an odd message from popular right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh: The hurricane forecasts are not to be trusted.

In “official meteorological circles,” he said, “they believe that Al Gore is correct” about climate change. They “desire to advance this climate change agenda,” he warned, “and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it.” So these meteorologists, he argued, create needless fear and panic.

What’s more, local TV stations are hyping the hurricane to drum up bottled-water sales for local businesses. (Seriously.) For Limbaugh, the hurricane conspiracy goes deep.

If you can put aside how irresponsible it is to send that kind of message to a group of people in real and serious danger (uh, extremely irresponsible), it’s almost funny. This is what conservative climate denial has come to. Even with one climate-amplified hurricane barely in the rearview mirror, another barreling down, and much of the Western half of the country on fire, the only reaction someone like Limbaugh can imagine is to double down. He would rather deny an oncoming hurricane than accept climate change.

It is difficult to appreciate, from up close and with so much else going on, just how deeply and ceaselessly bizarre US climate politics has become. Limbaugh is a good case study, but he’s not the only one. Several bits of recent news — for instance, Trump’s nomination of a climate denier with no science credentials to lead NASA — serve to illustrate the same point. American climate politics have gone from frustrating and weird to ... parody? Farce? Reductio ad absurdum? It’s difficult to know the right term. But it ain’t healthy.

The two consistent trends of the era of climate politics

Though it’s somewhat arbitrary, I date the era of US climate politics back to June 1988, when NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about climate change. Scientists had known about the greenhouse effect for a long while, but that is the moment when the subject entered US politics in earnest.

Ever since, two trends have unfolded side by side.

First, the science of climate change has grown more confident. Models and techniques have grown more sophisticated even as the field’s core findings have undergone unprecedented, multi-layered, international review and re-review (and re-re-review). Public communication of the basic scientific findings has never been better; there has never been more informed media coverage. The truth about climate change has never been more well-supported or more accessible.

Second, the US conservative movement has become increasingly tribal, insular, and disconnected from the institutions and norms that bind American democracy together. As part of that process, it has rejected climate change and the need to address it.

One might think, a priori, that the first trend would have some effect on the second trend — that the steady improvement in the evidence for climate change would loosen the conservative embrace of climate denial, or peel off a substantial bloc of Republicans, or give GOP lawmakers pause, or ... something. Indeed, thousands of people have devoted millions of hours of time to careful argument and persuasion on precisely that presumption.

But no. The trends have continued steadily on, with virtually no interaction, no sense that they are occurring in the same universe. Let’s take a look at some illustrative recent news.

Scientists set about refuting the remaining climate-skeptic literature

Most people have heard the statistic that “97 percent of climate scientists agree” on climate change. That stat traces back to an infamous study in which researchers built a comprehensive database of peer-reviewed scientific papers on climate change and classified them by whether they challenged the mainstream consensus. Just a little over 2 percent of the papers did. (Somehow “97 percent of papers” became “97 percent of scientists.”)

The study came under predictable attack, but its conclusions were in line with several other studies on the level of consensus. Skeptical Science has a nice rundown.

consensus (Skeptical Science)

Now some of the same researchers involved in that 2016 study — along with several new co-authors — have published a new study, in which they track down the peer-reviewed papers challenging the consensus and subject them to review. For each of the 38 papers, they analyze the data and methodology and attempt to replicate the conclusions.

The results? You will not be surprised to hear that most of the papers had methodological errors and bad arguments. The authors cite “missing contextual information,” “ignoring information that does not fit the conclusions,” “insufficient model evaluation,” “false dichotomies, inappropriate statistical methods, [and] basing conclusions on misconceived or incomplete physics.”

If you’re interested in the details, the study dives in pretty deep into each paper’s errors and mistakes. Katherine Ellen Foley has a nice summary on Quartz, one of the co-authors, Dana Nuccitelli, discussed the implications over on the Guardian, and another co-author, Katharine Hayhoe, has a Facebook post about it.

The take-home message is simple: The 2 percent or so of papers in the peer-reviewed literature that dispute the basic findings of climate science are mostly junk. The arguments of contrarians “weren't suppressed,” writes Hayhoe. “They're out there, where anyone can find them.” They’re just bad.

On one hand, this is yeoman’s work. It adds to the strength of the climate case. But on the other hand, I have to admit, when I first read about this study, I laughed.

I mean, it’s getting a little ridiculous. When 97 percent of scientific literature in a mature field agrees about something, we just say it’s true. When 97 percent of scientists agree about something, we just say all scientists agree. We don’t parse these tiny percentages; we don’t track down every individual that disagrees and refute them one by one.

Scientists figured this stuff out. Then they reviewed each other’s work, comprehensively, multiple times. They made the case. We live our lives and structure our society based on theories far less scientifically supported than anthropogenic climate change (see: anything in psychology, economics, or nutrition). Ninety-seven percent is extremely confident!

Now climate researchers are out wandering the landscape, seeking out the last remaining climate skeptic arguments, hunting them down one by one. At this rate, pretty soon every jackass in the comment section is going to have his own personal PhD student assigned to persuade him.

At a certain point, one has to question whether more of this is going to work, whether there is a substantial subset of people unconvinced by 97 percent confident findings who might be convinced by 98 percent confidence.

The evidence seems to show, rather, that the increasing strength of the climate case has made no dent whatsoever on the US conservative movement’s denial. Whatever their opinions might be sensitive to, it is not the work of scientists.

Did they not hear about this latest study?
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The know-nothings are ascendant

As the last 2 percent of credible climate skepticism was being demolished, the Trump administration was putting flat earthers in charge.

Trump announced he would nominate Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a climate denier, to head NASA. Bridenstine has no scientific credentials or executive experience, but he serves on the House Science Committee, under the similarly fact-averse Rep. Lamar Smith.

"Mr. Speaker, global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago," Bridenstine said on the floor of Congress in 2013. "Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles." (That’s all false.)

He does not believe that human carbon emissions are the primary driver of recent atmospheric warming. (That’s what “denier” means, no matter what Bridenstine’s surrogates now say.)

He even demanded that Obama apologize for funding climate research. Now, because he was an early Trump supporter and apparently once expressed an interest, he’s gonna get NASA.

Meanwhile, over at the Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt has put John Konkus, a political appointee from the public affairs office, in charge of grants, a move the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin rather drily terms “highly unusual.”

“In this role,” she writes, Konkus “reviews every award the agency gives out, along with every grant solicitation before it is issued.” He is reportedly on the lookout for “the double C-word,” asking grant solicitors to remove any reference to climate change. So far, he has canceled about $2 million worth of competitively awarded grants.

It’s not subtle, but we already knew Trump and Pruitt are going after climate action with an axe, not a scalpel. (Pruitt is also bringing environmental justice and NEPA reviews under his political control.)

For decades, the case that climate change is a threat has grown stronger and deeper. It has had no effect whatsoever on the trajectory of the US conservative movement. Here at the tail end of all those papers and reviews and meta-reviews, all those explainers and videos and infographics, we have an administration appointing idiots who say things like “the climate has always changed” to lead the agency in charge of climate research.

In this Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016 photo, U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, speaks during a rally for Ted Cruz in Tulsa, Okla.
Jim Bridenstine, explaining the whole ocean-cycles thing.
(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Still trying to make “tribal epistemology” happen

I look forward to the glorious day when our confidence in the basics of climate science finally makes it from 97 percent to 100 percent. But I think we have reached a point where we can say conclusively that the substantive scientific case for climate change is not going to pierce the conservative bubble, no matter how sharp the spear.

Hurricanes are battering our shores, the West is on fire, that poor 2 percent of remaining scientific skeptics has been refuted, and here’s Rush Limbaugh, telling people in Miami not to believe meteorologists.

It’s time to realize that more and better science isn’t going to make a difference because the conservative movement has become detached from mainstream science just as it has become detached from mainstream journalism. If you believe an institution is corrupt, captured by your enemies on the left, you’re not going to care if its confidence goes from 97 to 98 percent, or to 100 percent.

Mainstream science and journalism are saying one thing, conservative media and leadership are saying something else, and US conservatives have been trained for decades to listen only to other conservatives.

I called this “tribal epistemology” in a long post earlier this year, if you’re interested in digging in. But the ludicrous dichotomy is right on the surface for all to see: an ever-strengthening case for climate action bouncing off an ever-more-adamantine wall of denial.

Rush Limbaugh
Rush Limbaugh confronts a universe of lies that contains round corners.

For years, US political and media elites have treated GOP climate denialism as a kind of peculiarity, an idiosyncrasy, occasionally to be mocked or “fact-checked” but mostly, like climate change itself, to be politely ignored.

Now it seems climate denial was a canary in the coal mine, harbinger of a more thoroughgoing alienation from mainstream understanding of the world, leaving the right “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science,” as Ornstein and Mann so memorably put it.

The whole routine doesn’t seem so cute when the Book of Revelation is unfolding around us and a dumbass radio host might get people killed.

Refuting the last few scientific arguments for denial is not going to bring conservatives around. Clever new ways of talking about climate action are not going to bring conservatives around.

Research on public opinion shows that conservative opinion is responsive to one thing above all else: the cues of conservative elites. People don’t have strong opinions on political “issues” one way or the other. They believe and do what people like them believe and do, and they take their cues on that from trusted tribal leaders.

To put it more simply, conservatives will tend to believe on climate change whatever people on Fox (or talk radio) tell them about climate change.

It is conservative elites, and only conservative elites, who have the power to end this surreal farce. Judging from Rush Limbaugh’s take on hurricanes, they do not yet feel any pressure to do so.

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