If We Could Fix Climate Change With a Flick of a Switch, Would It be More Palatable to Conservatives?

Written by Jason Mark

As the consequences of climate change become increasingly obvious (you know, floods, fires, and droughts), it’s becoming more and more difficult for conservatives to dismiss global warming out-of-hand. Yes, the folks at The Heartland Institute are still plugging along (thanks for sending me your recent book, fellows). But – outside the shrinking band of dead-enders – self-described conservatives are beginning to acknowledge that man-made climate change is real and will require action. A recent Gallup poll found that more than half of Republicans now acknowledge the existence of global warming, up from 39 percent in 2011.

Having long denied the problem exists and squandered precious time to mitigate it, some conservatives now say it’s too late to do anything about climate change. This is what a former Obama White House official has called “the sophisticated objection” to taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Or as Stephen Colbert explained the situation earlier this year in his signature style: “It’s high time we stop denying the problem and resign ourselves to each day getting worse.”

In short, decades of delay and geopolitical gridlock have become an excuse for inaction and fatalism.

That’s bad enough. It’s sort of like letting part of your house catch fire and then saying there’s no reason to call 911 because, hey, the neighbors aren’t calling the fire department, either. Might as well let ‘er burn.

But I have another worry. I’m concerned that, with global atmospheric CO2 concentrations having topped 400 ppm (the highest in at least 800,000 years), conservatives will begin to say we have no choice but to embrace atmospheric geoengineering: technologies that will manipulate the entire planet by either blocking some sunlight from hitting Earth and/or finding ways to modify plants or the oceans to suck up vast amounts of carbon dioxide.

My anxiety is based on an interesting study published last year by Yale’s Dan Kahan and other researchers. Kahan and his colleagues wanted to test what’s called the “cultural cognition thesis.” This is the idea (fairly well documented by now) that most of us base our opinions – not on evidence or rational thought – but on factors like the beliefs of our peer group, our existing ideological frames, and our concept of values. Or, to mangle a complex scientific hypothesis and put it into lay terms: Conservatives are skeptical of climate change because they think Al Gore is a fat doofus, while progressives are skeptical of unfettered gun ownership because they think Rush Limbaugh is a fat doofus. No matter how rational we think we are, each of us perceives the world through the veil of our own biases.

Kahan et. al. wanted to test how individuals’ opinions about the risk of climate change are influenced by (among other things) whether they have heard of geoengineering. The researchers found that when given information about geoengineering, conservatives were more likely to accept information about climate change as real; at the same time, learning about geoengineering made liberals less likely to accept information about climate change. The science journalist Chris Mooney – who has made a career out of parsing the cultural cognition thesis – has a smart take here about the liberal side of the equation. I’m more interested in the conservative viewpoint because, as I said, I think geoengineering promotion is going to be the next stage of conservative talking points after climate fatalism. I’m pretty sure that someday soon we will witness conservatives clamoring for geoengineering as a preferred alternative to making our economies less carbon-intensive. The line will go something like this: “There’s nothing we can do to slash greenhouse gas emissions, so we might as well hack the sky.”

Recent research has revealed that there are real differences between the brains of self-described liberals and self-described conservatives. Liberals are, in general, more open-minded and interested in new ideas. Conservatives place higher value on orderliness and hierarchy. Liberals are more communitarian while conservatives are more individualistic. These predispositions help explain why conservatives would be more willing to accept climate change science if they have first learned about geoengineering. Here’s how Kahan and his colleagues explain it: “The geoengineering news story … linked climate-change science to cultural meanings – of human ingenuity and of overcoming natural limits on commerce and industry – that at least partially offset the threat that crediting such information would normally pose to the identity of Hierarchical Individualists [conservatives].” Or, in simpler terms: the technological quick-fix promised by geoengineering conforms to conservatives’ belief in humanity’s dominion over nature. At the very least, it’s preferable to making sweeping changes in our society and economy – changes that would likely have to be driven by some kind of government action. Geoengineering is attractive to conservatives because it offers the promise of being able to continue business as usual.

I’ve been tracking the geoengineering debate for years, and it scares the bejeebers out of me. The science of planetary manipulation might be air-tight, but everything else about it is half-baked. The geopolitics of the thing are messy: Who, for example, would control the global thermostat if, say, Russia wanted it warmer and India wanted it cooler? The ethics are also squishy: What if some people benefit from planetary manipulation while others suffer? Most worrisome is the long-term bind into which it would put all of humanity. Once we start manipulating the atmosphere, we won’t be able to stop, because then temperatures would spike back up.

As I wrote in an Earth Island Journal cover story some time ago: “As geo-engineering proponents acknowledge, schemes like sulfur aerosol address only the symptoms, not the source, of global climate change. That fact betrays our society’s bias for the techno-fix, the seemingly easy way out. Seemingly – because geo-engineering is the most complicated strategy we could pursue. It takes a problem, simplifies its cause, and then exaggerates its solution. It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine, employing eight or nine steps when one or two would do. Instead of pursuing the elegant solutions – trading in our cars for buses, turning off the coal and turning on the wind – we are going to build a contraption to make the clouds shinier.”

OK. But I have to wonder: If conservatives don’t trust the federal government to manage our health care system, why would they trust the federal government to manage the entire sky?

This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.



Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Brad Stockinger
Brad Stockinger4 years ago

Geo-engineering has already been in place since the late '80s. But it is apparent that they only spray around weather disturbances. This process may be causing weather to become more severe because where they spray, tempiratures drop 4 to 7 degrees. This causes a greater tempuratute difference between cold and warm fronts which adds energy to storms. Those that aré affected by tornado damage should sue the government for the weather modification.

Alicia Westberry
Alicia Westberry4 years ago

I'm not a science person. I never did very well in those classes, but geoengineering should scare everybody. Even I understand that. Sadly, I know plenty of people who won't get it.

Jennifer Kopp
Jennifer Evans4 years ago


Rebecca Brown
Rebecca Brown4 years ago

i think the individual can’t make much difference to climate change unless governments and companies make changes first. On example is with items put into recycling bins in the uk are not always recycled this is because the is not enough recycling plant this the waste in recycling bins goes to landfill

France Bergevin
France Bergevin4 years ago

tanks to post

Grace Adams
Grace Adams4 years ago

Connecticut's electric utility CL&P demands rate increases to prepay everything State of Connecticut asks it to do including trimming trees to keep them from knocking down power lines and buying smart meters so customers can buy electricity with time of day pricing. It will take customers prepaying for pilot plants for Algae Systems carbon-negative (bio-char carbon-store and soil amendment byproduct). It will take phasing in starting now over five years a 50% increase in energy prices split between buying fossil fuel displaced as reserves to hold underground unburned as it is displaced and buying renewable energy equipment. Oil firms renewable energy equipment will be the parts for a pilot plant for each oil firm to produce Algae Systems algal bio-diesel. Utilities renewable energy equipment will be wind, solar, geothermal power systems plus energy storage and smart grid electronics.

Sandi C.
Sandi C4 years ago

we would just find something else to screw up.

Hali Cespedes-Chorin

"Once we start manipulating the atmosphere, we won’t be able to stop, because then temperatures would spike back up."

Except.... we're already manipulating the atmosphere :(

BTW, we still have to reduce atmospheric CO2, because with the increased partial pressure of CO2, we have more CO2 dissolved in the oceans, which lowers the pH, raises the solubility of delicate species like corals, messes with pH sensitive enzymes, etc., etc. So if we do geoengineering, we're going to do it in such a way as to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. I suggest replanting some of the rainforests.