I have known a few conservatives who accept the reality and seriousness of human-caused climate change; I have known many more who do not. What is the difference? Skepticism of media.
Those conservatives who accept the scientific consensus about climate change are skeptical of media. Those who deny the scientific consensus are not.
I know, I know. Those who deny the scientific consensus claim to be the skeptics. They are the ones who say it is foolish to trust what the mainstream media say about climate change because the mainstream media have a liberal bias. So they are skeptical of what the New York Times says about climate change, and the Washington Post and the Guardian, skeptical of NBC, ABC and CBS. And God forbid they should happen across a climate change story on MSNBC, as they flip through channels.
The conservatives I know who accept the scientific consensus agree with this larger group that it is good to treat those sources with skepticism. But they go further. They also are skeptical about what FOX News says about climate change, and the Wall Street Journal. They are skeptical of Breitbart, the Telegraph and the Daily Wire.
The conservatives who accept the scientific consensus are genuine skeptics. They understand that every media report about climate change is telling a story about what climate scientists are learning. And these genuine skeptics care enough about truth to want to know which stories most accurately portray the science.
After all, these conservatives know that they themselves are not scientists, let alone climate scientists. It would be imprudent, foolish—highly non-conservative—to dismiss the experts simply because of a desire to believe the stories told in the Daily Wire, or even the Wall Street Journal. And so these true conservatives—genuine skeptics—make the effort to discover what sources most accurately report the research. They don’t want partisan fiction, they want the truth, and they are willing to leave their comfort zones in order to find it.
Nobody who seriously seeks to discover the sources that most accurately portray the science, and then with an open mind examines those sources, will remain a denier of the scientific consensus. But many will refuse to look for those sources, or read them with an open mind. That is why they are called deniers, rather than skeptics. They are not at all skeptical of their chosen media’s reporting about the science, but will deny any other report that disagrees with what they already wish to believe. They DO NOT CARE WHAT THE SCIENTISTS ACTUALLY SAY. They want to believe the fictional stories about the science presented in their favorite partisan media.
Climate change deniers who call themselves skeptics have on numerous occasions asked me to send them links to sources that accurately portray the science. I have always done so. I have never seen any indication that these people have actually read those sources, for soon they are raising the same questions and objections that I have answered many times before. They are not skeptics, they are deniers. And deniers are not conservative. They are people who, when hearing that climate scientists predict serious and potentially catastrophic consequences unless humanity rapidly phases out fossil fuels, refuse to accept the possibility. But they are not skeptical of the story in Breitbart, which cherry-picks the data in order to lie about it, or of Rush Limbaugh’s conspiracy theories about scientists.
Even with the lives of their children and grandchildren on the line, they refuse to be true skeptics. They prefer their partisan fairy tales. They DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THE TRUTH.
If you are a genuine conservative, or know someone you think might be, what can you do? Find reliable sources for your information about climate science. Professional science is so specialized you are highly unlikely to be able to adequately interpret the actual research articles, so that means choosing the best interpretive sources. Which sources have a good track record of accurately reporting what the scientists say, and which ones do not?
There’s no better way to do this than to see what the scientists themselves say about media reports. And there’s a global network of actively publishing climate scientists that does this: Climate Feedback. Several times a month its website publishes reviews of recent high-profile media reports about climate science, with multiple scientists weighing in on the credibility of the story. Each of the experts critiques the story and gives it a numerical value on a 5-point scale, from very high credibility to very low credibility. Sometimes the experts all agree, and sometimes they each score it differently. Climate Feedback shows the individual scores and the final average, as well as the discussion.
If you go through the stories the experts have critiqued so far, you will find some patterns. Breitbart, the Daily Wire, the Telegraph, the Spectator, the Daily Mail, the New York Post, the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal consistently misrepresent the science and receive the two lowest scores for credibility. The New York Times and the Washington Post, Vox and Mashable consistently receive the two highest scores for credibility. These are sources that routinely present an accurate account of what scientists are actually reporting.
Of course, any popular media story, even one that climate scientists single out as most credible, will inevitably have at least some minor problems from the scientists’ perspective, because presenting the science in a way that’s understandable to a general audience requires some simplification that makes the actual researchers uncomfortable. But the narrative critiques on Climate Feedback make that all very clear.
Also, some sources may tend to be either quite credible or quite poor, and yet now and then put out a story that goes to the other end of the scale. Forbes is a good example of this. Panels of scientists have critiqued a few stories published by Forbes; all of these received very poor ratings except for one about increased flooding from climate change, written by Matthew Francis and published on October 25, 2015, which was ranked as highly credible in its reporting of the science.
Over time, certain writers also stand out for their accuracy in reporting the findings of climate scientists. None of the following group is perfect, according to the expert reviews at Climate Feedback, but when you see a story by them you can cautiously assume they are accurately reporting the science. In no particular order, this reliable group includes Chris Mooney of the Washington Post, Justin Gillis of the New York Times, Doyle Rice of USA Today, Damian Carrington and Oliver Milman of the Guardian, Andrew Freedman of Mashable, and Brad Plumer of Vox and the New York Times. I am surprised that Climate Feedback hasn’t yet critiqued anything by David Roberts of Vox; I believe he, too, would receive a high score for accurately reporting the science.
Climate change is considered an urgent moral issue by many religious leaders, especially those who have paid close attention to the science. And so Climate Feedback also critiqued Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, which was published in June 2015. Nine reviewers commented, and it was rated highly credible. The concerns were the typical ones about simplifying for a broad audience, as well as what some reviewers described as minor inaccuracies or omissions. Catholics who have rejected it by claiming the pope is not a scientific expert are missing the point. Because he knows he is not a scientific expert on climate change (he did do advanced work in chemistry), he sought out the genuine experts. In other words, he did what every prudent, conservative Catholic should do: sought the truth, not merely the comforting story. And so his encyclical does a highly credible job of reporting what the scientists actually say, and then makes his moral case for how people should respond.
There are federal government websites that also present the science accurately and for a general audience. Again, the question shouldn’t be whether or not you like the government, but does the information presented accurately reflect what the scientists say. NASA has a great introduction to climate science as well as many other articles and resources. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts out a very good monthly newsletter highlighting the newest research and lots of other information at its climate website, including a good section of frequently asked questions about global warming.
Speaking of questions, the basic design of the excellent website Skeptical Science centers on the most common questions about global warming and climate change, with answers for a given question available for readers with basic, intermediate, or advanced scientific backgrounds.
Morally, there is no excuse for not making a serious effort to find out what the vast majority of active climate scientists are saying, for if they are even close to right the world is already in the early stages of climate-change-exacerbated suffering, and our response will determine just how bad the suffering will get. To choose to get your understanding of the science from partisan sources that are known to misrepresent the science is to engage in willful ignorance, and, given the stakes involved, this attitude is what Christianity has always described as a gravely sinful lack of prudence. Right now, political forces are actively distorting the science for the sake of greed and power. NASA’s former chief scientist, Ellen Stofan, recently said Americans “are under siege by fake information that’s being put forward by people who have a profit motive. Fake news is so harmful because once people take on a concept it’s very hard to dislodge it.” Further evidence of the propaganda machine’s success is a key finding in a new study released yesterday indicating that only 13 percent of Americans realize that more than 90 percent of climate scientists agree about the reality of human-caused climate change, the key role of fossil fuels, and the diminishing time frame the world has to have a chance of avoiding truly catastrophic scenarios.
The opposition to climate science is not remotely conservative, nor is it prudent. It isn’t even skeptical. It is a cynical, relentless onslaught of lies, and is wrong. Grotesquely, sinfully wrong. People who call themselves conservatives must decide: Am I merely partisan, or do I really seek truth? Climate science is rooted in basic physics that extends to the mid-1800s. You may try to fool yourself into thinking your partisan sources are honestly portraying the science, but physics is not partisan, nor is nature. Someday your grandchildren will want to know: “What did you do? What did you do, once you knew?” Saying you were fooled by partisan websites will not cut it.
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
–Drew Dellinger, “Hieroglyphic Stairway”