Climate change isn't liberal or conservative: It's reality

Paul Douglas is a Minneapolis/St.Paul meteorologist. Meteorologists don't study the same things as climate scientists—remember, weather and climate are different things—but Douglas is a meteorologist who has taken the time to look at research published by climate scientists and listen to their expertise. Combined with the patterns he's seen in weather, that information has led Douglas to accept that climate change is real, and that it's something we need to be addressing.

Paul Douglas is also a conservative. In a recent guest blog post on Climate Progress, he explains why climate isn't (or, anyway, shouldn't be) a matter of political identity. We'll get back to that, but first I want to call attention to a really great analogy that Douglas uses to explain weather, climate, and the relationship between the two.

You can’t point to any one weather extreme and say “that’s climate change”. But a warmer atmosphere loads the dice, increasing the potential for historic spikes in temperature and more frequent and bizarre weather extremes. You can’t prove that any one of Barry Bond’s 762 home runs was sparked by (alleged) steroid use. But it did increase his “base state,” raising the overall odds of hitting a home run.

Mr. Douglas, I'm going to be stealing that analogy. (Don't worry, I credit!)

A few weeks ago, I linked you to the introduction from my new book, Before the Lights Go Out, where I argue that there are reasons for people to care about energy, even if they don't believe in climate change—and that we need to use those points of overlap to start making energy changes that everyone can agree on, even if we all don't agree on why we're changing.

But there's another, related, idea, which Paul Douglas' essay gets right to the heart of. Just like there's more than one reason to care about energy, there's also more than one way to care about climate. Concern for the environment—and for the impact changes to the environment could have on us—is not a concept that can only be expressed in the terms of lefty environmentalism.

You and I can think about the environment in very different ways. We can have very different identities, and disagree on lots of cultural and political issues. All of those things can be true—and, yet, we can still come to the same, basic conclusions about climate, risk, and what must be done. Here's Douglas' perspective:

I’m a Christian, and I can’t understand how people who profess to love and follow God roll their eyes when the subject of climate change comes up. Actions have consequences. Were we really put here to plunder the Earth, no questions asked? Isn’t that the definition of greed? In the Bible, Luke 16:2 says, “Man has been appointed as a steward for the management of God’s property, and ultimately he will give account for his stewardship.” Future generations will hold us responsible for today’s decisions.

This concept—Creation Care—is something that I've summed up as, "Your heavenly father wants you clean up after yourself." It's not a message that is going to make sense to everybody. But it's an important message, nonetheless, because it has the potential to reach people who might not otherwise see a place for themselves at this table.

Too often, both liberals and conservatives approach climate change as something that is tangled up in a lot of lifestyle, political, and cultural choices it has nothing to do with. Those assumptions lead the right to feel like they can't accept the reality of climate change without rejecting every other part of their identities and belief systems. Those same assumptions lead the left to spend way too much time preaching to choir—while being confused about why people outside the congregation aren't responding to their message.

That's why essays like Douglas' are so important. We look at the world in different ways. We come by our values for different reasons. But even though we might take different paths, we can come to some of the same places. Let's respect that. And let's have those conversations. Climate change is about facts, not ideologies. It's about risks that affect everyone. We need to do a better job of discussing climate change in a way that makes this clear. And that means reaching out to people with language and perspectives that they can identify with.

Read Paul Douglas' full post on Climate Progress.

Read more about energy, climate, and what we can do to make the message of climate science more universal in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Weather, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 66770481@N02's photostream


  1. “Climate change isn’t liberal or conservative: It’s reality”

    Yes, but as we all know, reality has a liberal bias, so reality is not to be trusted since it is probably a socialist Muslim, and actually should be ignored, shouted at, threatened with violence and insulted. Right? What’s this ringing sound between my ears?

  2. Even if someone does not believe in say GLOBAL WARMING, it is still going to turn around and bite that someone in the ass since mother nature does not care what anyone believes.

    1. If we are going to personify her I suspect mother nature cares very much what we all believe.

      1. I think that’s the point. We can’t continue to assume that nature is a parental figure that’s going to put us in time out while she cleans up the mess we’ve made.

        1. I think both viewpoints are true. We create ourselves and are outside nature – in that sense nature is indifferent to us. We are created and limited by the laws of physics and chemistry – in that sense nature is not indifferent to us. We need language which takes account of both perspectives. (There is also a problem with the definition of the female simply as indifferent and not as indifferent versus caring and/ or arousing desire and the lack of male/female code switching.) Nature is not concerned with what we believe but might be very much concerned with what we know. Unless we find language which involves everybody in a creative process and does not limit creation to a chosen few I do not think science has any chance whatsoever of engaging with people in their everyday lives.

  3. Yes, it is about facts not ideology but when the people are about ideology, not facts the whole thing falls apart.

    And many conservatives would read the title of this story and conclude, “Global warming isn’t conservative? Then it MUST be liberal.” Because if it’s not for you it of course it’s against you, right? Must be difficult to be victimized so.

    Sorry… that all was really negative. I’m glad that someone on the conservative side of the fence is trying to make a difference.

    1. And many conservatives would read the title of this story and conclude, “Global warming isn’t conservative? Then it MUST be liberal.”

      Well, that’s the bizarre thing. Evironmentalists are often conservationists trying to keep what’s left of nature from being destroyed. Many groups were founded by hunters who wanted to preserve sustainable wildlife areas for their sport if not posterity (such as Ducks Unlimited). Nothing seems like a greater example of applied conservatism than that.

      And yet, this is often deemed a “liberal” cause (when ironically, it’s economic liberalism that’s often pushing for more environmental destruction in the name of free enterprise).

      1. What, you just realized that conservatism and conservatives in general don’t conserve shit-all?

  4. I have always assumed that the reluctance of (many) conservatives to accept climate change as real is because, as a problem, it doesn’t seem to have a free market, non-governmental solution. In an ideal world, we could all unanimously decide to buy only from companies that are doing their bit to head off global warming. In the real world, we all just go out and buy whatever’s cheapest. The free market will excel at delivering products to help us ‘cope’ with the aftermath of climate change, but it won’t do much to prevent the problem arising.

    It’s also unwise to rely on corporations voluntarily taking steps to ‘clean up their act’. Some have, probably as a PR exercise. But a company that does so puts itself at a competitive disadvantage: a less ethical competitor can deliver their products that bit cheaper and beat the nice guys in the marketplace. The free market doesn’t reward altruism in the short term.

    The opposing approach, which calls for Bad Old Government to throw its weight around, set emissions standards and impose penalties for non-compliance, has a better chance of working. It’s fraught with problems of its own, but it’s less of a total non-starter than the other options.

    So if you’re faced with a problem that seems to challenge your philosophical outlook, you can either revise your beliefs, or you can deny that the problem exists. Conservatives – and corporations – often seem to choose option (b).

    1. So if you’re faced with a problem that seems to challenge your philosophical outlook, you can either revise your beliefs, or you can deny that the problem exists. Conservatives – and corporations – often seem to choose option (b).

      To be fair, liberals are just as prone to cognitive dissonance as conservatives; but since reality, as we know, has a liberal bias, it may be a little more apparent when conservatives do it.

    2. Your entire post is rotten at the roots. No free market exists. Also, the United States government is the largest polluter in the land. Who will hold them accountable? 

      A truly free market, i.e., one that doesn’t include government favors and protections for pet companies, would create greener companies and technoogy. There is no question. 

      I know plenty of conservatives that are as interested in greening business as the next [liberal]. But so far, big companies have leveraged (pork bellied, if you will) green regulations to smash competition. This is not the way to care for the environment and grow the economic pie. This breeds more Fascism, which we are undeniably knee-deep in. 

      Occupy Wall Streeters should be more concerned with eviscerating the bonds between corps and government. A free market is possible, and it’s the best activism there is. Relying on government to change the nature of the very capitalism it has created and sanctioned through policy and regulation is insane (Hagelian, even) in the most severe Einstein-ian sense. 

      Running to government for help is like running from a gangster into the arms of a cop on the take. 

      1. Wow, so you side step angusm’s entire point, and respond with why your libertarian ideology is correct; it’s not that markets can’t adapt to any problem in all of existence, it’s that Government is *causing* global warming.

        I would rail against everything you said with a thousand words of anger and righteous facts, but I think your exercise in mixing blind ideology with a complete lack of self-awareness is a better illustration of the problem mentioned by angusm  than anything I could ever come up with.

  5. It’s an odd feeling to be living at the start of what will most likely become a human race-threatening phenomenon. It is kind of like being among the first few who realize that the dead are reanimating and have a taste for flesh, all the while a huge portion of society is ignorant and in denial. Fast forward a couple decades and drought induced famine and social chaos might as well be a zombie apocalypse. The most frustrating part being – who is it I should now be shooting in the head? 

    1. If global warming could be solved by shooting people in the head, I think you’d find that many conservatives would be much more open to the concept.

      1. Since most conservatives are also “christians”, that would pose a problem, since suicide is considered a sin.

        1. Suicide is considered a sin, sure, but state-sanctioned murder is totally fine, at least with most conservatives.

        2. First, according to some Christian cults suicide is considered a sin.  Not all of the cultists agree on that.

          Second, what makes you think the conservatives would be shooting themselves?

          -abs is pretty sure that the conservatives would be cool with any solution to global warming that involved invading another nation and shooting it’s people in the head, hell, he’d be in favor of it himself (if he thought it would work, which it wouldn’t)

  6. Maggie, scientists have identified climate change. What is the scientific solution to stopping it?

      1. That part, I know. How do you do that on a global scale? What will it take? I’d like someone to answer that.

          1. Thanks for the interesting link. Even it admits, in the best case, its NAmerican and Eurocentric solutions, particularly in solar power, can’t account for the other 4.5 billion people in the world. Realistically, a section of a train track isn’t going to deliver an end to climate change. In fact, at the rate people say it’s changing, we’re not going to stop climate change at all. It’s only starry-eyed hubris to think we can. But there are xlnt reasons for affecting change to alt energy. Oil, ultimately, will be depleted but not our need for power. And coal filthies the world’s living room. Reasons enough, imo. But enough with ‘do this so we can stop global warming.’ Unless you know a true, realpolitik way in the world we live in right now.

            ewiebe: “We need to enact a global solution.” Okay, but you’ll be marlin fishing in Kansas by the time the world decides on the shape of the negotiation table.

        1.  Political will. That seems particularly lacking in North America lately. They are pushing ahead in (some of) Europe. Is this the first problem of this scale to face us collectively? We need to enact a truly global solution but we have all these fractious countries and short-sighted politicians in the way.

  7. Thanks for this. I now have something to send to my elderly relatives in return for all the lovely Right-Wing email forwards and snail-mail GOP propaganda Xeroxes they send me.

    And they might actually read it!

  8. I was fussing about this idea today. Anonymous, for example, is so grandiose that only believers would watch an entire announcement of theirs. They are over the top in the most propagandistic way. They are incapable of persuading anyone but true believers, no matter how much you are with them. So they keep talking to themselves. But as to climate change, there is a whole Christian conservative movement imploring an understanding. One of the movers is Katharine Hayhoe. Here’s the book she wrote, which should be distributed to every American:  It is written without sanctimonious words or hyperbole. It’s perfect. You can follow her on twitter @Khayhoe. This is what can turn the tide, not liberal facts being spread back and forth, or spewed AT deniers.

  9. My evangelical family members will not agree with Creation Care because they firmly believe that jesus is coming back in their lifetimes. They view the presidency of Obama, possible war with Iran, etc as being signs of the “end times”. They seemed to have been convinced that Obama was the antichrist for a while (now they’re confused). They really believe that nothing they do will have any impact on the fate of this planet outside of convincing people to accept christ and save their souls.

    1. You are exactly right. That is the whole problem of getting evangelical christians on board with conservation. I have also heard the “Obama is the antichrist” remark. I think they dislike him not so much based on race, but because of his charisma. Evangelicals are very wary of charismatic people who seem to have the kind of group sway that Obama did during his first run. To these type of Christians, nothing mankind does turns out alright in the end.

      1. Evangelicals are very wary of charismatic people who seem to have the kind of group sway that Obama did during his first run. 

        Um, really?  Because they seem to be swarming around Santorum in hordes — and Santorum is the very definition of Evangelical!

        The fact that you don’t think this has much to do with race is hilarious.  And wrong.

        1. Santorum’s a Catholic, which, to this brand of evangelical, is not evangelical at all.

          Evangelicals are attracted to him because he’s 1) anally conservative (figuratively AND literally) and2) he’s not Mormon.

      2. Evangelicals are very wary of charismatic people who seem to have the kind of group sway that Obama did during his first run.

        You mean like every giant-haired evangelical preacher in the US?  The whole evangelical movement is founded on mindless devotion to charismatic individuals.

        1. Right, but in keeping with the basic tenants of grouping theory, they are *Christian* charismatic cult leaders.  It’s a very important distinction.

      3. I agree with Beth. I spent a while in these churches, and one thing they emphasized over and over is that the antichrist would be especially charismatic, he (of course, a he) would sway the world with his lies. I think, combined with the Fox News bubble, the evangelicals couldn’t comprehend why people respected Obama. To them, democrats were all brainwashed, and so it made them even more paranoid that he’s could be the antichrist, especially after those rallies. Pretty fucked up.

        Great point about charismatic preachers though. 

  10. I had the link to download Katharine Hayhoe’s book, but it must be on my work computer. Here is a link to a presentation she gives, that is a capsule of the book:

  11. The thing is, I could give a 60-minute lecture on all the science behind AGW (Carbon cycle, milankovitch cycles, the methodology used to gather historical climate data such as drilling ice cores and counting isotopes of oxygen), but it wouldn’t do any good. Science has been and always will be political. Take a look at Gallileo and what did they do him when he wouldn’t recant that the earth revolves around the sun. Today we have the unfortunate distinction of having a large, technocratic workforce without any scientific grounding. Of the STEM fields, engineers are probably the most braindead about science. I’ve heard one deny that evolution was possible because it violated the second law of thermodyamics without realizing the earth is not a closed system.

    1. Engineers are well versed in the physical sciences.  What many are lacking is knowledge of biological and chemical sciences.  Thus, denialism.

      That being said, denial of evolution science isn’t the topic at hand.

      1.  I disagree. They’re well versed in sciences that are relevant to the task at hand. Outside of researchers in the applied sciences, most engineers I know do not keep up with new findings nor do they give a shit after they start getting paid to do things.

  12. It won’t do any good with those who are ideologically opposed but it will help many others who simply don’t know what’s going on.

  13. Ok, suppose we go to new energy use and generation technologies and thereby create massive employment, and free ourselves from politically disastrous foreign oil dependencies and get rid of pollution but then it turns out that Global Warming is a hoax?   We’ll have built a better world for nothing!  Won’t we feel silly then!

    1. The sad thing is that this is how politicians actually seem to think. If it has anything to do with something that will happen past the point where they need to care about re-election, then they’re not interested.

  14. “Climate change isn’t liberal or conservative: It’s reality”

    Not quite correct, it is both!  The mere fact of its existence certainly don’t preclude people from fighting against it on a partisan basis.  They even claim it is not real, but that’s just posturing similar to claims that Iraq had WMDs as a justification for certain policies. 

    The truth matters very little in ideological matters.

  15. I remember when people used to say “you can’t prove that cigarettes cause cancer” because there isn’t video of a cigarette transforming into to a cancerous lump.

  16. The first politician/party who is committed to both not fucking up my grandkids’ atmosphere with trillions of tons of CO2 and not fucking up their finances with trillions of dollars in debt will get my unqualified support.

  17. Once you study the problems of climate change deeply enough, you start to realize that climate change itself isn’t the problem; it’s merely a symptom of a much bigger problem. Biodiversity loss, nitrogen fixation, peak oil, scarcity of fresh water, and soil erosion are also just symptoms:
    The bigger problem is that the human race is living well beyond its means, consuming and wasting non-renewable resources without any regard to the long term global consequences. The more you look into it, the more it looks like consumerism itself is the root of the problem – entire societies dedicated to ever faster cycles of consumption and obsolescence, while externalizing the environmental costs. I’ve asked a number of economics and political scientists whether it’s possible to separate consumerism from capitalism. The answer appears to be ‘no’. In which case it’s likely that capitalism itself is also at the root of the problem.But then if the problem is with capitalism itself, then the idea that right-wingers can be persuaded to care about climate change is itself delusional. Climate change and all those other symptoms of transgressed planetary boundaries are a consequence of right-wing ideology when it’s scaled up to planet-wide principle.

    So yes, climate change is fundamentally inconsistent with right-wing ideology. If you think that climate change can be solved without dismantling the capitalist system, then you’re kidding yourself.

    Okay, now someone cheer me up by showing me what’s wrong with this analysis, without reverting to name calling or ridicule.

    1. Capitalism has so far done better at cleaning up its messes than has Marxism-Leninism.  Much, much better.  I doubt that will cheer you up much, though…..

      1. No disagreement there. But Marxism-Leninism is far from being the only other choice. You can’t absolve capitalism by pointing to one system that’s worse.

        1. Well, those are the only two systems that have built societies which have gotten beyond a subsistence level of existence and generally raised living standards.

          Now if you want to argue that “advancing beyond subsistence farming and hunting”  rather than “capitalism” is responsible for fouling the planet, that’s an argument I’m prepared to listen to.

          1. Well, those are the only two systems that have built societies which have gotten beyond a subsistence level of existence and generally raised living standards.

            This is all wrong. Actually, unfettered capitalism probably resulted in some of the lowest quality of life ever attained by human beings. Factory workers in the UK and the US in the latter half of the 19th century had life expectancies as short or shorter than those of medieval serfs and their living conditions were probably worse as well. (Go ahead, read some descriptions of factory town slums from the 1880’s or 1890’s.) It’s likely many of them lived below subsistence levels, slowly starving to death or dying of malnutrition.

            It wasn’t until collective bargaining and…well…socialism that “capitalism” actually started generating good outcomes for society.

          2. Well, those are the only two systems that have built societies which have gotten beyond a subsistence level of existence and generally raised living standards.

            Plenty of societies over the last five or ten millennia have gotten beyond subsistence level and raised living standards.  Gladiator fights make better cinema, but Rome did quite a bit to improve infrastructure for many millions of people.

          3. wysinwyg – “It wasn’t until collective bargaining and…well…socialism that “capitalism” actually started generating good outcomes for society.”

            Not quite the same thing as what greebo said, which was “capitalism must be dismantled”.

            Capitalism with modifications and regulations is not the same as “socialism” nor is it the same as “dismantling”.

        2. You obviously have some  nations in mind in which (1) living standards are steadily advancing, (2) climate change  and other environmental damage is not being exacerbated, and (3) they are really socialist (in other words, no significant private ownership of industry).

          I’d love to see that list.

      2.  You know, I’m gonna call shenanigans on that. How was it that capitalism cleaned up slavery? Or the great Depression? Or pollution?

        1. There is a hell of a lot less pollution in the Cuyahoga River than there was forty years ago.  Compare it to, say, Magnitogorsk.

          1.  Capitalism didn’t clean up the Cuyahoga. It was cleaned up despite capitalism.

          2. “Capitalism didn’t clean up the Cuyahoga.”

            It was cleaned up without the government or workers taking ownership of the companies involved – either those who did the polluting or those that did the cleaning up.

            The contributors on this board who continually talk about how we have to “dismantle the capitalist system” in order to clean up the environment should be asked to show at a minimum, one real world example where this has worked.  A place where capitalism has been abolished and the environment has gotten better.

    2. I suspect the root of our problem is somewhat more fundamental than consumerism, though that is symptomatic of the issue. I think that we may simply not have the capacity to use reason to overcome our inherent drive to grow and consume as much as possible, because curbing those fierce impulses in order to live sustainably has not been a dominant selective pressure during our biological and cultural evolution. Our physiology, thought processes and behavior were, and continue to be, forged by natural selection. We are alive because our ancestors pursued growth and resource acquisition more successfully than other humans and species with whom we competed. Continual growth and maximal resource utilization is a fundamental guiding principle of life….axiomatic…..since the first self-replicating, self-encoding molecular entity. Life that that could reproduce faster to make more of itself, made more of itself. Only when resources start to become limiting, when there is no new space to explore, utilize and grow into, does such growth-addicted behavior start to become a negative selective pressure. Some civilizations probably reached that point in the past. We haven’t yet reached it as a whole species, however it seems almost inevitable we will soon. Without having yet reached the point at which our growth is palpably detrimental to all of us, we haven’t been subjected to such negative selective pressure en masse, and so we haven’t had a reason to adapt. Why should we expect that we can subdue a primordial behavioral strategy that has been fantastically successful for 4 billion years? (not to say that I don’t sincerely hope we can…..)

  18. The first time I saw the ‘Aftermath’ episode of the BBC ‘Spooks’ series (called MI-5 in the US), it really had that torn from today’s headlines feel. There’s a transcript of the crucial scene about halfway down this page (find ‘Aftermath’): 

    1. Wow, that’s remarkably similar to some of the conclusions that Gwynne Dyer comes to in his book “Climate Wars”. He interviewed top military planners in the US and elsewhere, to find out what scenarios they have mapped out for the threats from climate change over the next few decades…

  19. Religion and Fascists (all Capitalists are Fascists) have always been in bed together. Neither cares one bit for the rights of those they exploit, much less have any respect for other species or the planet.

  20. I’m afraid that passage from Luke has nothing to do with stewardship of the Earth. It talks about not being wasteful in general and the difference between giving to “God and Mammon,” but not what Douglas says.

    This takes nothing away from the overall truth in Douglas’ argument, but if you’re going to cite Scripture to conservative audiences you should get it right.

    1.  LOL, I was going to make a joke about how anyone can interpret the Bible anyway they want (which is mostly true judging by the differences between, say, Baptists and Methodists) but yeah, Luke 16 really doesn’t seem to have anything to do with stewardship of the earth.

  21. Evolutionary biology, geology, and cosmology are neither “left” nor “right” but it sure as hell isn’t stopping folks from politicizing them.

  22. We are not destroying our planet, we are destroying ourselves. The earth will be around (probably not as we know it now) long after the human species has killed itself off.

  23. I actually am glad people still don’t believe in global warming. That way, it’s easier for me to weed out the idiots. If I meet you, and I find out that you don’t believe in global warming — or, for that matter, you believe that vaccines cause autism — I can immediately discount everything you say. 

  24. This is one of the most irritating things I’ve ever read on Boing Boing, filled with meaningless platitudes, false equivalencies and sickening liberal shame . “Concern for the environment—and for the impact changes to the environment could have on us—is not a concept that can only be expressed in the terms of lefty environmentalism.” What does that mean, exactly? The only reason that concern for the environment–or even recognition of the fact of human-induced climate change–is associated with “lefty environmentalism” is because the right wing in this country has waged an all-out war, not just against efforts to control pollution, but against the very concept that global warming exists, in the process doing enormous collateral damage to how the American public views science and the scientific method. It’s been pointed out by many that meteorologists as a group are far less likely to believe in climate change because of their lack of training in the subject, which is a far more important fact than a cutesy, anecdotal tale about one brave conservative meteorologist who overcame his prejudices to acknowledge, you know, a fact. How’s he doing with the whole “sky is blue” thing? Sure, it’s super that there are a couple right-wingers out there who buck the trend, hooray for them. But pretending that the left and the right are equally culpable for inserting “disrespect” or ideology into the “debate” about climate change is just plain wrong, and moreover, counterproductive. If these brave conservative, religious meteorologists who have so impressively acknowledged reality would like to help with the problem, then they should join the rest of us in the reality-based world in our fight against the forces that are hell-bent on obfuscation of science and fact in the name of greed and power. The implication that some nebulous, unidentified “lefty environmentalism” cabal made timid churchgoes  “feel like they can’t accept the reality of climate change without rejecting every other part of their identities and belief systems” is utterly preposterous, and only serves to weaken the cause. If stating facts is not “reaching out to people with language and perspectives that they can identify with,” then I don’t want to speak their language.

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