A Philosopher's Blog

Conservative Conservation

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on March 1, 2017

While the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, it has become an ideological matter. In the case of conservatives, climate change denial has become something of a stock position. In the case of liberals, belief in human-caused climate change is a standard position.  Because of the way ideological commitments influence thought, those who are committed to climate change denial tend to become immune to evidence or reasons offered against their view. In fact, they tend to double-down in the face of evidence—which is a standard defense people use to protect their ideological identity. This is not to say that all conservatives deny climate change; many accept it is occurring. However, conservatives who accept the reality of climate change tend to deny that it is caused by humans.

This spectrum of beliefs does tend to match the shifting position on climate change held by influential conservatives such as Charles Koch. The initial position was a denial of climate change. This shifted to the acceptance of climate change, but a rejection of the claim that it is caused by humans. The next shift was to accept that climate change is caused by humans, but that it is either not as significant as the scientists claim or that it is not possible to solve the problem. One obvious concern about this slow shift is that it facilitates the delay of action in response to the perils of climate change. If the delay continues long enough, there really will be nothing that can be done about climate change.

Since many conservatives are moving towards accepting human caused climate change, one interesting problem is how to convince them to accept the science and to support effective actions to offset the change. As I teach the students in my Critical Inquiry class, using logic and evidence to try to persuade people tends to be a poor option. Fallacies and rhetoric are vastly more effective in convincing people. As such, the best practical approach to winning over conservatives is not by focusing on the science and trying to advance rational arguments. Instead, the focus should be on finding the right rhetorical tools to win people over.

This does raise a moral concern about whether it is acceptable to use such tactics to get people to believe in climate change and to persuade them to act. One way to justify this approach is on utilitarian grounds: preventing the harms of climate change morally outweighs the moral concerns about using rhetoric rather than reason to convince people. Another way to justify this approach is to note that the goals are not to get people to accept an untruth and to do something morally questionable Quite the contrast, the goal is to get people to accept scientifically established facts and to act in defense of the wellbeing of humans in particular and the ecosystem in general.  As such, using rhetoric when reason fails seems warranted in this case. The question is then what sort of rhetoric would work best.

Interestingly, many conservative talking points can be deployed to support acting against climate change. For example, many American conservatives favor energy independence and keeping jobs in America. Developing sustainable energy within the United States, such as wind and solar power, would help with both. After all, while oil can be shipped from Saudi Arabia, shipping solar power is not a viable option (at least not until massive and efficient batteries become economically viable). The trick is, of course, to use rhetorical camouflage to hid that the purpose is to address climate change and environmental issues. As another example, many American conservatives tend to be pro-life—this can be used as a rhetorical angle to argue against pollution that harms fetuses. Of course, this is not likely to be a very effective approach if the main reasons someone is anti-abortion are not based in concern about human life and well-being. As a final example, clean water is valuable resource for business because industry needs clean water and, of course, human do as well. Thus, environmental protection of water can be sold with the rhetorical cover of being pro-business rather than pro-environment.

Thanks to a German study, there is evidence that one effective way to persuade conservatives to be concerned about climate change is to appeal to the fact that conservatives value preserving the past. This study showed that conservatives were influenced significantly more by appeals to restoring the earth to the way it was than by appeals to preventing future environmental harms. That is, conservatives were more swayed by appeals to conservation than by appeals to worries about future harms. As such, those wishing to gain conservative support for combating climate change should focus not on preventing the harms that will arise, but on making the earth great again. Many conservatives enjoy hunting, fishing and the outdoors and no doubt the older ones remember (or think they remember) how things were better when they were young. As examples, I’ve heard people talk about how much better the hunting used to be and how the fish were so much bigger, back in the good old days. This provides an excellent narrative for getting conservatives on board with addressing climate change and environmental issues. After all, presenting environmental protection as part of being a hunter and getting back to the memorable hunts of old is far more appealing than an appeal to hippie style tree-hugging.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on March 1, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Human caused climate change is a myth, a vision, a story… “We have a choice of what myths, what visions we will use to help us understand the physical world. We do not have a choice of understanding it without using any myths or visions at all.” (Mary Midgley, Mary Midgley, Science as Salvation (London: Routledge, 1993) p.13)

  2. Glen Wallace said, on March 3, 2017 at 3:52 am

    I continue to assert that the term ‘denier’ in the sense that it is used in this context is inappropriate insofar as the term ‘climate change’ refers to a theory and not an individual fact. A ‘denier’ in this sense refers to someone who refuses to acknowledge an individual prima fascia evident fact, whether that fact be an individual piece of empirical evidence or a mathematical conclusion. However, all scientific theories are uncertain and therefore debatable. The history of philosophy of science is replete with attempts to gain some level of mathematical certainty with scientific theories and all such attempts have ended in failure. I would instead argue that, ironically, we can know with a priori certainty that the term ‘climate change’ refers to a theory rather than an individual fact. The ironic part then is that it may then be appropriate to refer to proponents of climate change as being in denial of the fact that ‘climate change’ is just a theory and not a fact.

    I do agree there is a lot of trans political shared values across the political spectrum supporting preserving the natural lands in their natural state. Also, an appeal could be made to right wing associated libertarian value of property rights that are being violated when pipeline constructions like the Keystone are being laid on private lands despite the wishes of dozens of those private landowners.

    I do think a lot of climate change advocates also engage in rather counter productive human relations methods and would do well by reading Dale Carnegie’s famous book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. I’m not saying I agree with everything in the book, but I do think he does present some good techniques for the influencing part. And with regard to protecting the environment, a lot of influencing of politicians and constituents needs to be done. But often with the climate change debate, it just devolves from political activism to just a competitive debate with the environmentalists losing site of the original goal of protecting the environment and instead they end up just focusing just on winning the debate and vilifying the other side (vilifying — a good way to alienate and antagonize an audience, but not a good way to sway or influence them).

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 6, 2017 at 7:58 pm

      True; much of the conflict is needless and arises from people bashing their ideological horns against each other. They should, as you say, focus on the intersections of their values and goals. There will still be conflict, but less. I would hope.

  3. ronster12012 said, on March 3, 2017 at 11:43 am


    You seem to justify using almost any tricks to get what you imagine to be conservatives to believe in climate change. The problem is that most people are waking up to the propaganda about almost any topic shoved at us these days. That includes all the rhetorical tricks used by the propaganda/advertising/public relations industries.

    The first of those tricks was to call skeptics “deniers”, to link them with the supposedly beyond the pale holohoax deniers. That trick was supposed to make skeptics easier to manage and put them on the back foot. Instead, it woke many people up to multiple hoaxes.

    Secondly,, the term “climate change” is itself suspect, not because the climate changes (and has continued to change for billions of years) but because it is is intended to frighten people into thinking that this is a new phenomenon. And a dangerous one at that. You may recall that it was once called global warming until it was rebadged as climate change. Obama tried a further rebadging as “global climate disruption” but it didn’t stick.

    For me, it looked rather hoaxy back in the early 90’s when it was launched, because there was no discussion of net benefits of a warmer wetter world. Any actual climate change will have winners and losers. For example, a warmer world would open up vast amounts of agricultural land in the northern latitudes in Canada and Russia. Here in Oz with our deserts that can’t actually get much drier(same as the Sahara) we might even get some greening. But we didn’t get a discussion of possible benefits only a constant message of doom. No nuances, no netting out of winners and losers just doom……well, one key rule in propaganda is to keep the message simple and repeat it often…

    The other thing that actually screams hoax is how it is presented as such a threat(ignoring the fact that the world has been hotter, without a ‘runaway greenhouse effect and more CO2 without a hot climate)is that other real threats are ignored or, at the most minimized. These include nuclear war, asteroid impact, a major solar storm or solar mass ejection or a worldwide pandemic. One key difference between these real threats and the hoax under discussion is that it is difficult to make money or gain more political control out of them whereas with CC, the whole point is to tax CO2.

    And lastly, I think that your faith in climate scientists and their ‘science’ is touchingly naive.Just do a little research on scientific fraud. There’s a lot of it about in areas where the public can be fleeced, and scientists are usually quite cheap to buy.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 6, 2017 at 7:53 pm

      I’m very familiar with science fraud and have written a post or two about it. However, the idea that so many scientists are hoaxing the rest of the world seems unlikely. Not impossible; but wildly implausible. Also, since climate data is readily available it would seem easy enough to expose the hoax-unless the hoax is universal across all countries and goes way back.

      I do have moral concerns about using rhetoric in place of logic; but all people are unswayed by logic most of the time. That just leaves rhetoric and such. Ideally, people would train to be good thinkers, just as they would maintain a regular physical fitness program. But, you know people. Big Macs for the belly, bad TV for the brain.

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