Last week, I talked about some of the factors in the late 20th century that helped lead to 21st century conservatives no longer accepting scientific or other kinds of empirical facts. The rise of political talk radio and television and the advent of the internet, both in the 1990s, made it easier to isolate oneself from alternative points of view. But there was something else that started happening in that decade and sped up after the turn of the century that specifically spoke to conservatives: denial of climate science.
I am a historian, not a scientist. But I do teach, and studied In my doctoral program, environmental history – so I pay particular attention to this topic. I could explain in detail the (very factual) way the greenhouse effect works, and why, but you can find that information easily. It’s not that the facts aren’t out there – it’s that some people have worked very hard to delegitimize them. 97 percent of climate scientists agree that earth’s average annual temperature is getting hotter each year and that human activity is the primary factor causing it. That number has held steady for this whole century. Do you realize how hard it is to get 97 percent of academics to agree on anything at all? Once upon a time in America, if 97 percent of the experts said something was happening, probably 97 percent of the general public would trust them on it.
So what happened? It was that other 3 percent or, more accurately, the people who funded them. Many of that 3 percent wound up appearing on television talk shows – especially, but not limited to, conservative ones – and were employed by think tanks that were financed by oil and other energy companies. Because some newspapers, channels, and programs wanted to be perceived as presenting objective news and not opinion, they would have one scientist on their show who believed in climate change and one who disagreed and let them argue about it. So viewers were exposed to venues that either showed only the 3 percent point of view or one that presented the 3 percent and the 97 percent equally. That made it easy to convince a large number of Americans that the experts were divided and that both points of view were roughly equal – therefore not reliable.
That process was expedited, in 2009, when over a thousand hacked emails from climatologists were released by conservative activists and offered as proof that the researchers were making up the whole thing as a way to get government money. Independent fact-checkers quickly verified that the emails had been misrepresented and taken out of context and that the accusation, not the climate research, was actually the hoax. That evidence didn’t matter, though, to those who wanted to disbelieve in climate change, if they ever even heard about it. Let me be clear here: climate science became political because if people believed in it oil companies would lose money, and it was the oil companies who bought the ads that financed the talk shows and who donated heavily to politicians (on both sides of the aisle, but especially on the right). So when the TV/radio pundits and the politicians started questioning scientific facts, the people in their base who had already gotten in the habit of only hearing one point of view started doing the same thing. The result? Such people stopped believing scientists, or scientific fact, and viewed any fact that didn’t support their party’s current worldview as a liberal hoax or even a diabolical conspiracy.
Nowadays, more people believe in climate change – because we are literally seeing it. Many conservatives, though, will argue that it is not because of carbon emissions but is just a natural cycle of the earth. That’s not what the experts say – but experts no longer seem to matter. People think 20 minutes on the internet makes them as knowledgeable as someone who trained for years.
More to come.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.