You Cannot Change the Mind of Somebody Who Doesn’t Have One

What is it about right-wing ideology that can prevent its adherents from seeing things that are right in their faces? How can those on the political right ignore the plain facts of income inequality and police brutality? How can a worldview induce blindness?

Once again, we’re confronted with another example of politically-induced glaucoma in the United States.

As the annual United Nations climate talks get under way Monday in Peru, global leaders are likely to call out natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy in a bid to rally support for a pact combating global warming.

But a new study finds that extreme weather – whether it be droughts, floods or heat waves – does little to change attitudes about climate change in the United States.

Climatic conditions “only have a negligible effect on perceptions about the seriousness of climate change,” the researchers wrote in a study published in Global Environmental Change. “These results suggest that further changes in climatic conditions are unlikely to produce noticeable shifts in Americans’ climate change perceptions.”

Rather, it comes down to personal politics.

“Our results show that political orientation has the most important effect in shaping public perceptions about the timing and seriousness of climate change.”

Climate change remains one of the most polarizing issues in the United States and surveys have found that Americans are more divided and doubtful about the issue than in other leading countries.

One survey found that only 46 percent of Americans felt there was serious impact now from climate change and 28 percent felt global warming would have serious impact in the future. Three in four Republicans didn’t feel global warming will be a threat to them personally; 56 percent of Democrats felt it would.

In other words, the political right has invented its own reality–a reality free of science, free of facts, free of moral obligations to look out for future generations.

As I read this morbid story, I couldn’t help thinking of the song “The Great Pagoda of Funn” [sic], from Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen’s 2006 album Morph the Cat. The song dealt with a couple that chose to simply block out any aspect of post-9/11 New York, since they had decided it was too much to deal with psychologically. I don’t think the characters in that song were Republicans, but too many Americans are behaving the exact same way those characters behaved, locking themselves away from reality, embracing the most deranged of fantasies.

Christopher Warshaw, an assistant professor of political science at MIT who is also studying climate change attitudes, said it made sense that politics trumps almost everything else when it comes to global warming.

“There is a huge body of scholarship in which people sort of internalize external events through a partisan lens,” Warshaw said. “People’s views on whether wars are a good idea shift completely when the party in power changes. In some ways, it would be more surprising that climate change didn’t work that way.”

Part of the resistance to changing one’s views, Warshaw said, is that action on climate change will require a big role for government which is seen very differently by Democrats and Republicans.

“Certainly on the left, your ideological predisposition is to support more government action. The fact the government will have to do something about climate change doesn’t challenge your prior believes about the role of government in the world,” he said. “Whereas if you are conservative, you believe the government shouldn’t do much. The fact the government will have to take a lot of action to address climate challenges your core beliefs about the role of government in the world a little bit.”

This certainly clarifies why the far right spent so much energy and effort and money chasing centrist/moderate Republicans out of the GOP over the last few decades; anyone who accepts objective reality, even in a limited sense, must be branded an enemy and destroyed.

How ironic is it that as we go into the holiday season, the folks who run around complaining about an alleged “War on Christmas” cannot hear what we hear, and cannot see what we see?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.