In a rational world, the burning of Australia would be a historical turning point. After all, it’s exactly the kind of catastrophe climate scientists long warned us to expect if we didn’t take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, a 2008 report commissioned by the Australian government predicted that global warming would cause the nation’s fire seasons to begin earlier, end later, and be more intense — starting around 2020.
So this should be the moment when governments finally began urgent efforts to stave off climate catastrophe.
But the world isn’t rational. In fact, Australia’s anti-environmentalist government seems utterly unmoved as the nightmares of environmentalists become reality. And the anti-environmentalist media, the Murdoch empire in particular, has gone all-out on disinformation, trying to place the blame on arsonists and “greenies” who won’t let fire services get rid of enough trees.
These political reactions are more terrifying than the fires themselves.
...You might be tempted to dismiss Australia as a special case, but the same deepening partisan division has long been underway in the United States. As late as the 1990s, Democrats and Republicans were almost equally likely to say that the effects of global warming had already begun. Since then, however, partisan views have diverged, with Democrats increasingly likely to see climate change happening (as indeed it is), while Republicans increasingly see and hear no climate evil.
Does this divergence reflect changing party composition? After all, highly educated voters have been moving toward the Democrats, less-educated voters toward the Republicans. So is it a matter of how well informed each party’s base is?
Probably not. There’s substantial evidence that conservatives who are highly educated and well informed about politics are more likely than other conservatives to say things that aren’t true, probably because they are more likely to know what the conservative political elite wants them to believe. In particular, conservatives with high scientific literacy and numeracy are especially likely to be climate deniers.
But if climate denial and opposition to action are immovable even in the face of obvious catastrophe, what hope is there for avoiding the apocalypse? Let’s be honest with ourselves: Things are looking pretty grim. However, giving up is not an option. What’s the path forward?
The answer, pretty clearly, is that scientific persuasion is running into sharply diminishing returns. Very few of the people still denying the reality of climate change or at least opposing doing anything about it will be moved by further accumulation of evidence, or even by a proliferation of new disasters. Any action that does take place will have to do so in the face of intractable right-wing opposition.
This means, in turn, that climate action will have to offer immediate benefits to large numbers of voters, because policies that seem to require widespread sacrifice — such as policies that rely mainly on carbon taxes — would be viable only with the kind of political consensus we clearly aren’t going to get.