Hurricane Michael
Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

If you put your tropical fish tank on top of a radiator in winter, eventually you’ll be finding Nemo dead because the sudden fluctuations in water temperature will kill him. Changes in environment put stress on lifeforms that have evolved and adapted to succeed based on the collective experiences of their predecessors. Not all stress is fatal, of course, but it’s generally unpleasant and unwelcome.

For example, maybe you’ve been operating tour boats along the Cape Fear River in North Carolina for decades and suddenly realize that to keep barnacles from attaching to your boat you need to invest in an expensive antifouling paint. Maybe you’re having to deal with flooding from the river that is more frequent and extensive than anything you needed to worry about before. Maybe the river is suddenly brackish enough to support saltwater fish far upstream from the ocean.

Climate change causes problems irrespective of its causes, but it should be clear that God is not responsible for creating hog waste lagoons all across North Carolina or for storing coal ash in flood zones. If people want to protect their waterways from toxic pollution, they have a responsibility to use their brains rather than banking on divine benevolence.

Republicans haven’t always been in the business of denying climate change. Only ten years ago, John McCain and Sarah Palin ran a presidential campaign that included a plan for addressing the problem. Soon after their defeat, however, the Party was hijacked by energy lobbyists who have used every available resource, from the cable news to the pulpits, to raise doubt about whether the climate is changing and whether we can or should do anything about it even if it is.

The result can be seen everywhere, including in the areas recently ravaged by Hurricane Florence.

Plenty of residents in North Carolina’s southeastern corner still reject the science, attributing changing weather patterns to God and the cycle of nature. A group of college students fishing off a pier on the barrier island of Wrightsville Beach last week called climate change a “load of crap.” A surfer taking advantage of Hurricane Michael’s turbulent waves dismissed it as “propaganda.” A sunburned construction worker said it’s not worth worrying about because “God takes care of it.”

Who told them that climate change is “propaganda” and “a load of crap”? Who gave them the impression that God would take care of it?

Conservatives are famous for discovering empathy only when they’re directly impacted. It turns out that unemployment insurance is a good program when you get laid off, that federal healthcare research is a wise investment when your spouse gets cancer, that gay marriage and adoption are human rights when your son is gay. Predictably, attitudes about climate change have shifted among North Carolinian Republicans in the aftermath of the recent storms.

An Elon University survey taken in early October, after Hurricane Florence hit, showed that 37 percent of Republicans believe global warming is “very likely” to negatively impact North Carolina coastal communities in the next 50 years. That is nearly triple the percentage of Republicans — 13 percent — who felt that way in 2017.

The percentage of Republicans who felt climate change is “not at all likely” to harm the state’s coastal communities dropped by 10 points over the past year — from 41 percent in 2017 to 31 percent now.

It’s encouraging to see that some conservatives are still capable of learning from direct experience even if it contradicts what they’re constantly told by their trusted news sources and religious leaders, but it’s in the nature of the climate change challenge that we can’t wait until we directly feel its effects to begin our work on stemming the rising tides.

That’s why I find the following completely un-encouraging:

It took a giant laurel oak puncturing her roof during Hurricane Florence last month for Margie White to consider that perhaps there was some truth to all the alarm bells over global warming.

“I always thought climate change was a bunch of nonsense, but now I really do think it is happening,” said White, a 65-year-old Trump supporter, as she and her young grandson watched workers haul away downed trees and other debris lining the streets of her posh seaside neighborhood last week, just as Hurricane Michael made landfall 700 miles away in the Florida Panhandle.

Who told Margie White that climate change is “a bunch of nonsense”?

She didn’t come to that conclusion about other science-related news. I’m sure she doesn’t doubt the meteorologists when they tell her it’s likely to rain or snow. She doesn’t doubt the warning labels on her cleaning solvents. She doesn’t take ten aspirin when they bottle says it’s only advisable to take two. But somehow she decided that climate change is a lie. She was taken for a ride by some of the most cynical people on Earth, and she’s not alone:

Nationally, a wide partisan chasm remains, with only 11 percent of Republicans describing climate change as a “very big” problem compared to 72 percent of Democrats, according to a new poll released this week by the Pew Research Center.

Barely one in ten Republicans nationally thinks that climate change is a “very big” problem, but ten in ten Republicans will believe it when a giant laurel oak punctures their roof. And that’s not even a valid scientific validation for the theory. It’s just the kind of direct experience with unpleasantness it seems take to get a conservative to care.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at