Tim Wirth calls out powerful denialism on human environmental impacts


A Washington Post poll shows a sharp partisan division on the question of whether, during the past 10 years, human activity has had a negative effect on the world’s natural environment. UN Foundation president Tim Wirth says powerful economic interests have contributed to moving public opinion away from environmentally sustainable alternatives.

The Washington Post reports (“As Rio summit commences, Americans see environment deteriorating”):

On the eve of a major gathering to discuss the state of the planet, a Washington Post poll shows that most Americans think the world’s natural environment has deteriorated over the past decade, and more than six in 10 say humans are making the problem worse. …

Americans’ views of the environment divide along party lines, according to the poll. More than seven in 10 Democrats and independents say human activity has had a “mostly negative” effect on the environment over the past decade; only a bare majority of Republicans agree. Democrats and independents are also more apt to say the environment has gotten worse over the past decade and are more downbeat about its prospects.

A key poll finding:

Q: Over this period [past 10 years], do you think human activity has had a mostly [negative/positive] effect on the world’s natural environment]?

                                            Negative           Positive

Democrats                               75                      20

Independents                          73                      21

Republicans                             51                      38

U.N. Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth, who is attending the Rio summit, said groups with an economic interest in exploiting natural resources and burning fossil fuels are helping to shape public attitudes.

“The scientific evidence for deterioration is overwhelming and almost universally shared,” Wirth wrote in an e-mail. “The polling data suggests that the deniers, who have much to gain financially by continuing to use resources in an unsustainable fashion, are having a real impact on American public opinion.”

Wirth said in an interview posted June 19:

UN News Centre: Why is there still resistance to shifting to more sustainable energy sources?

Timothy Wirth: Well, the very large companies that have enormous investments in traditional fossil fuels like coal and oil are going to be opposed to any kind of change. So they are going to argue that it is impossibly expensive to shift from our traditional fossil fuels into a non-fossil fuel economy. But the fact is that this is not true. That, in fact, the shift to non-fossil fuels is ultimately going to be much less expensive, much less damaging, and, in the long-term, it is going to be sustainable. And it will be able last from generation to generation, rather than having to, in a couple of generations, worry about totally fouling up the Earth’s atmosphere.

I would add, specifically with reference to climate policy (from a longer earlier post):

Support for and opposition to climate change mitigation policy – and I would also include adaptive preparedness policy, since the impacts are already starting to be experienced – has become another aspect of a larger conflict over the direction of the country. It developed along partisan lines and in terms of different philosophies and value systems. And not only does it involve the highest level of the power elite and how they determine their interests, but it’s also, at the grassroots, part of the culture war in this country. …

[A]ddressing the climate change challenge implies government activism. It cannot be dealt with at the level of actions by individuals. And it is unrealistic to think that it will be dealt with globally by a de-regulated market economy.

It calls for the United States to submit to international agreements and constrain its own behavior. It requires a proactive US government policy to regulate greenhouse gases; to do adaptive preparedness planning; to support the shift to sustainable energy technologies.

Government activism and regulation and international agreements – these are the kinds of things in the great divide of American politics that seem easier for the liberal/left/progressive side to deal with. It’s more congenial to their underlying philosophy.  And they don’t have a big problem with the climate scientists. But the right-wing conservatives tend to be very threatened by this. They hear ‘government control of our lives; telling us what kind of car to drive; what light bulbs to use.’

So you get, on the one hand, at the level of corporate power: ‘we have trillions of dollars invested in fossil energy infrastructure; they’re not going to take that away from us. We’re going to stop the political process from acting on this.’ Among the grassroots conservatives it’s, ‘we cannot accept the implications of this.’ …

Those two forces have coalesced in the political arena. On the one hand, the corporate interests that don’t want to be regulated, wealthy anti-regulatory ideologues, and the political elites that are aligned with them. On the other, the grassroots conservatives who are culturally at odds with progressive values and what they see as liberal elites. …

Getting past the current impasse will require dealing with both the problem of corporate power and political obstacles and the problem of conflicting cultural values and how this plays into science denial.

Also see:

Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality (Wiley, 2012)

Naomi Klein, “Capitalism vs. the Climate” (The Nation, November 28, 2011)

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