Climate Denial May Never Disappear - It Doesn't Need to
Geoffrey Miller - Politics & Economics
In the Short Term, Change May Feel Invisible
In 2010, the Institute of Public Affairs, an Australian conservative think tank, published a compilation of essays by prominent climate change deniers titled Climate Change: The Facts. Across the Pacific, the current administration is delighting in the opportunity to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations and openly claiming that climate change is another ‘hoax’.
Yet 79% of U.S. adults believe that ‘human activity contributes a great deal to climate change’ according to a 2019 study by Pew Research.
Something doesn’t add up.
How could an election be won by someone who fundamentally disagrees with 79% of U.S. adults?
In a similar study conducted after the 2016 election, only 48% of U.S. adults believed that human activity contributes to climate change. What changed? It wasn’t the science.
Public opinion changed. 31% of U.S. adults changed their minds.
Our opinions and beliefs are the direct consequence of the world we experience around us. When that world transforms, so too do our beliefs. In 2016, the ‘policy’ of doing nothing about climate change would satisfy a majority (52%) of U.S. adults. In 2020, it would satisfy just 21% of U.S. adults. Would a climate-denying policy platform that worked in 2016, win a re-election bid in 2020? What about 2028? Or 2036? I wouldn’t take those odds.
So, what do we do with the TV talking heads and out-of-touch policymakers who insist on denying climate science? Ignore them. They’re losing relevance every day.
Throughout history, once outrageous ideas often find themselves with public support many years later.
On December 22, 1968, The New York Times called the plot of the play ‘Spitting Image’, in which a same-sex couple marries and has a child, both ‘farcical’ and an ‘outrageous charade’.
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states.
Universal Basic Income has often been labelled as ‘radical socialism’ and many laughed Andrew Yang off the debate stage in late 2019 as he promised each American $1,000 a month if elected.
In July, Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey joined a network of mayors called ‘Mayors for a Guaranteed Income’ to fund UBI field experiments in 15 cities across America.
The ideas never changed, the people did.
The Moving Target of Public Opinion
A policy option on the table today may not necessarily be on the table tomorrow. In 2020, the moving target of public opinion is shifting faster and faster with each crisis and historic event. While it doesn’t always materialise in such a way, policymakers are beholden to what is deemed acceptable in what political scientists call the Overton Window. Developed in the mid-1990’s by Joe Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Overton Window is a ‘model for understanding how ideas in society change over time and influence politics’. Underlying the model, is the understanding that policymakers are constrained by the political climate in which they operate and that their political possibilities are ‘framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents’.
Within the Overton Window, policymakers have wiggle room to pursue their own ends. When 42 lobbying firms, associations and companies seek approval for the controversial Keystone Pipeline in a nation in which most adults don’t believe that human activity affects climate change, a policymaker might be able to support the project and get through unscathed. Yet could we say the same thing about a policymaker in 2020 when only 21% of U.S. adults deny climate science?
Joseph Overton never intended for his framework to be widely recognised, rather to ‘explain to potential donors what the point of a think tank was’. Ultimately, his point was that policymakers cannot make decisions in a vacuum, they must consider what is acceptable by the public. While in 2020 that may not seem to be the case, consider some policies that might presently be outside the Overton Window. A proposal such as dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or giving the head of the EPA, Anthony Wheeler, full executive authority, may be proposals that are off the table and labelled ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ by either party. Though proposing a 10% funding increase might be far more palatable to the public.
The Overton Window isn’t exclusively responsive to currently elected officials either. Many heralded Andrew Yang’s expensive, unsuccessful presidential campaign in which his sole policy proposal was implementing a Universal Basic Income as impetus for bringing the idea to the national stage. Similarly, despite two unsuccessful presidential campaigns, we can only wonder what the public might think about Medicare-for-All, a single payer health insurance program, if not for Senator Bernie Sanders. Public discourse in any form can shift the dial; incrementally or significantly.
It’s clear that public opinion drives federal policy in one way or another; whether it’s by dictating the policy proposals or by electing policymakers that represent the beliefs of American voters. Thus if a belief is held by 4 in 5 voters, the question isn’t ‘if’ the government will act on it, the question becomes ‘when’ will the government act on it.
The question remains, what will come of those who refuse to change their tone; those voices that insist on denying the science that 97% of scientists agree on, those voices who speak on public issues with undertones of self-interest, those voices who insist that they know better than 80% of their voters?
Winning a re-election campaign by disagreeing with 80% of your voters won’t be easy, even considering the partisan divide within those beliefs. Getting booked on a talk show when your views anger 80% of a show's audience won’t be easy either. It will get increasingly difficult for climate deniers to find a platform. They’ll get driven to smaller and smaller subsets of the political spectrum to find audiences willing to hear their message. At federal, state, and local government levels, voters will largely reject candidates with views so dissimilar to their own.
Some will adapt, realising that holding such extreme views will damage their public image. They will claim to have found the light after a climate disaster that hits home for them or after a key campaign donor threatens to pull funding. Some will fade away as the public rejects their policy platforms, and their names become synonymous with bad government on the wrong side of history.
And some will double down, refusing to accept that the Overton Window has shifted. Their message will be marginalised and their arguments discredited by an increasingly powerful coalition of climate change activists. Their political power will diminish with each election cycle that they refuse to adapt, until they find themselves on the fringes of the political spectrum labelled as ‘radicals’.
Once they lose their seat at the negotiating table, they’re not reclaiming it. Until their beliefs align with those of their constituents, there’s no coming back.
The environment and its people will be better off for it.
Written by Geoffrey Miller
Geoff graduated from The University of Technology Sydney last year with a Bachelor of Business with Honours in Economics. He's curious about the nature of economic and social systems, an unapologetic Utopian idealist and, as a self-proclaimed Minimalist, desperate to tackle overconsumption at its core.
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