Inside Story

Climate change and the intellectual decline of the right

No arguments seem to sway right-wing politicians and commentators in the United States and Australia, says John Quiggin. Will we have to wait for demography to do its work?

John Quiggin 18 August 2014 1633 words

In Australia, the steady stream of defections includes former Liberal leader John Hewson, pictured here at a “We Say Yes” to a carbon price event in 2011. Samuel Cardwell/AAP Image

The abolition of the carbon tax has raised, yet again, the question of how to convince those on the political right to accept mainstream climate science and the need for effective mitigation. There’s been a lot of discussion of this over recent years, in Australia and the United States, much of it premised on the idea that the problem is one of presentation. Recommendations include avoiding alarmism, finding non-threatening ways to explain the problem, and focusing on technological solutions as opposed to “hair shirt” environmentalism.

None of these ideas has worked. A cautious presentation of the evidence gives the right a chance to point out supposed contradictions between those estimates and the alarming projections that represent, according to mainstream science, the most likely outcome. Carefully demonstrating that the cost of fixing the problem will use a trivially small share of national income goes nowhere. Any technological innovation that is presented as a solution (wind, solar PV, electric cars) is instantly the subject of vilification and the kind of ludicrous claim about health effects that would be denounced by the right in any other context. (Slight qualification: the idea of going off-grid appeals to some American libertarians to the point where they are willing to make common cause with environmentalists.)

This is a fairly dismal picture. There is, however, a bright side.

It’s well established that claims of all kinds made by right-wing politicians and commentators tend to be based on tribal shibboleths rather than factual evidence. Recent Australian examples include Eric Abetz on the supposed link between abortion and breast cancer, Joe Hockey on the consumption habits of the poor and, of course, Maurice Newman on climate science.

While it’s very hard to convince right-wingers of anything that the Murdoch press and the conservative commentariat opposes, anti-science denialism makes the right-wing package as a whole less appealing to uncommitted voters, and even more to young people settling on their political identity.

The process is more advanced in the United States, where the Republican Party has lost badly among young voters and now relies on a core of older white male voters, the group most associated with anti-science attitudes on climate and other issues. The pattern is similar, though not as firmly entrenched, in Australia.

In the long run, the loss of young voters spells demographic disaster for the right. Put simply, their voting base is beginning to pass away and is not being replaced. (As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli observed in a similar context, “Science proceeds by funerals.”) But there is more than demographic transition at work.

As George Orwell observed, intelligent people are very good at engaging in “doublethink” when their tribal or nationalist affiliations require it. But it’s an uncomfortable exercise, a fact that was evidenced by a steady stream of disillusioned departures from the Communist Party over the second half of the twentieth century. Having attracted many of the best and brightest thinkers in the 1930s and 1940s, the communist parties of the West shrank rapidly to a hard core of hacks and tribal loyalists before collapsing altogether.

We are now observing a similar phenomenon on the political right. Thirty years ago, in the wake of the economic crisis of the 1970s, the intellectual and political right was brimming with self-confidence. Think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Heartland Institute in the United States and, in Australia, the Centre for Independent Studies and (at least for a period under the leadership of John Hyde) the Institute of Public Affairs were issuing incisive critiques of the social-democratic welfare state and the environmental movement, and producing reams of discussion of new ideas, such as privatisation and “free-market environmentalism,” the then-radical idea of using market prices to provide incentives to reduce pollution.

During this period, centre-left parties like the US Democrats and the Australian Labor Party did little more than play catch-up, resisting some of the more extreme ideas put forward by the right and adopting softer-edged versions of the others. Bill Clinton’s “third way” politics was assembled primarily from right-wing ideas, most notably “the end of welfare as we know it.” This dominance continued into the early years of the Obama administration: Obamacare, for instance, is based on the idea of the individual mandate, first put forward by the conservative Heritage Institute in 1992.

Today, by contrast, the air of intellectual crisis on the right is palpable. The think tanks have mostly given up the pretence of engaging in serious discussion of ideas. The Heartland Institute has discredited itself with a series of stunts, most notably a billboard campaign in which Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) was presented as a believer in mainstream climate science. The Heritage Foundation has given up serious policy work and is now dominated by its Heritage Action fundraising and political campaigning committee. In Australia, the Institute of Public Affairs, once a reliable critic of handouts and infrastructure boondoggles, has been reduced to touting Gina Rinehart’s demands for tax subsidies and publicly funded dams in Northern Australia.

The lack of ideas on the right has become a staple of political commentary, and has led to the emergence, in the United States, of a group of “reform conservatives,” including Ross Douthat and Yuval Levin. Commentary on this group focuses not so much on the content of their ideas as on the fact that they have ideas at all.

The result has been a steady stream of defections, reversing the tendency of earlier decades in which shifts from left to right were far more common. Typically, each individual shift is the result of a string of disillusioning experiences. Often, some relatively minor disagreement is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The stream of departures has included writer and editor Michael Lind, historian Bruce Bartlett, columnist Andrew Sullivan, and George W. Bush’s one-time speechwriter, David Frum. Australian examples include Malcolm Fraser, John Hewson and Robert Manne.

Increasingly, objection to climate change denialism is one of the triggering factors. Most obviously, it has led Republican-aligned scientists like Kerry Emanuel to abandon the fold. In fact, scientists are now, along with African-Americans, the group most reliably hostile to the Republican Party, with only around 6 per cent identifying as Republicans and another 12 per cent as “Republican-leaning” independents.

The billboard fiasco led to the departure from Heartland of Eli Lehrer’s insurance policy group, one of the few areas in which Heartland research had any credibility. Unsurprisingly, the insurance industry cannot afford to let tribal affiliation get in the way of a realistic assessment of the risks of climate change. Lehrer has founded a new group, the R Street Institute, which explicitly endorses mainstream science.

The erosion of intellectual credibility is already harming the right in the United States and Australia, and will do so for many years to come. The fact that Barack Obama was easily re-elected in 2012, despite a weak economy and flagging personal popularity, is one indication of this. Obama’s win marked the fifth time in the last six presidential elections that Democrats have won a plurality of the popular vote. And the failure of the Romney campaign was due in part to the kind of delusional thinking typified by climate science denial. Romney’s team was convinced that the opinion polls, which consistently pointed to an Obama win, were “skewed” by the malice or incompetence of pollsters who, they thought, were oversampling Democrats.

Similarly, in Australia, despite an easy election victory over a divided demoralised Labor Party, Tony Abbott has never succeeded in persuading Australians that he has anything to offer beyond slogans that embody delusions rather than a genuine understanding of our problems. Yet the government remains convinced that it has a popular mandate for policies it never announced during the election campaign.

To paraphrase Adam Smith, “there’s a lot of ruin in a political movement.” Even when their intellectual bankruptcy is obvious, political parties can win elections through emotive appeals, gerrymanders, or simply appearing as the lesser of two evils. So, it seems likely that the intellectual decline of the right will continue a fair way before it becomes obviously untenable.

It is unclear how this process will play out. It is possible, though it seems unlikely, that the right can reform itself by becoming more open to new ideas and evidence-based policy. Alternatively, it may find new ways of marketing the tribalist politics exemplified by a hatred of environmentalists.

A third possibility is that the right will continue on its current path and will alienate potential supporters, particularly among the young, to the point where it can no longer sustain a veto on policies such as climate change mitigation. Given the delays that have taken place already, it will be necessary to accelerate the pace of mitigation fairly drastically. The resulting costs will be economically manageable, but much more than if a sensibly bipartisan policy response had been adopted in the two decades since the issue rose to prominence (perhaps 5 to 10 per cent of national income instead of 2 to 4 per cent).

The consolation for those on the left is that, even if climate change mitigation becomes more costly, the intellectual decline of the right offers the opportunity for rapid progress in many other areas, from social policy to a reversal of the massive growth in inequality that has taken place during the decades of right-wing dominance. A reduction of a few percentage points in aggregate national income would be a small price to pay for such an outcome. We just have to hope that it is not already too late to stabilise the global climate. •