Environment, Politics, Recommended, Science

Empiricism and Dogma: Why Left and Right Can’t Agree on Climate Change

As a climate scientist, I often hear puzzled complaints about the political polarization of the public discussion about anthropogenic global warming. If it is an empirical and scientific matter, such people ask, then why is opinion so firmly divided along political lines? Since it tends to be the political Right that opposes policies designed to address and mitigate global warming, responsibility for this partisanship is often placed solely on the ideological stubbornness of conservatives.

This is a theme common to research on political attitudes to scientific questions. Division is often studied from the perspective of researchers on the Left who, rather self-servingly, frame the research question as something like: “Our side is logical and correct, so what exactly makes the people who disagree with us so biased and ideologically motivated?” I would put books like Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality in this category.

Works like The Republican Brain correctly point out that those most dismissive of global warming tend to be on the Right, but they incorrectly assume that the Left’s position is therefore informed by dispassionate logic. If the Left was motivated by pure reason then it would not be the case that liberals are just as likely as conservatvies to deny science on the safety of vaccines and genetically modified foods. Additionally, as Mooney has argued elsewhere, the Left is more eager than the Right to deny mainstream science when it doesn’t support a blank-slate view of human nature. This suggests that fidelity to science and logic are not what motivates the Left’s concern about global warming.

Rather than thinking about the political divide on global warming as the result of dogma versus logic, a better explanation is that people tend to embrace conclusions—scientific or otherwise—that support themes, ideologies, and narratives that are preexisting components of their worldview. It just so happens that the themes, ideologies, and narratives associated with human-caused global warming and its proposed solutions align well with the political predispositions of the Left and create tension with those of the Right.

The definitional distinction between the political Right and the political Left originated during the French Revolution, and relates most fundamentally to the desirability and perceived validity of social hierarchies. Those on the Right see hierarchies as natural, meritocratic, and justified, while those on the Left see hierarchies primarily as a product of chance and exploitation. A secondary distinction, at least contemporarily in the West, is that those on the Right tend to emphasize individualism at the expense of collectivism and those on the Left prefer the reverse.

There are several aspects of the contemporary global warming narrative that align well with an anti-hierarchy, collectivist worldview. This makes the issue gratifying to the sensibilities of the Left and offensive to the sensibilities of the Right.

The most fundamental of these themes is the degree to which humanity itself can be placed at the top of the hierarchy of life on the planet. Those on the Right are more likely to privilege the interests of humanity over the interests of other species or the “interests” of the planet as a whole (to the degree that there is such a thing). On the other hand, those on the Left are more likely to emphasize a kind of pan-species egalitarianism and care for our shared environment, even if that means implementing policies that run counter to humans’ short-term interests.

Within humanity, there are at least two additional ways in which narratives about hierarchies influence thinking on global warming. One of these concerns attitudes towards developed versus developing countries. Firstly, the blame for global warming falls disproportionately on developed countries (in terms of historical greenhouse gas emissions) and proposed solutions therefore often call on developed countries to bear the brunt of the cost of reducing emissions going forward. (Additionally, it is argued that developed countries have the luxury of being able to afford increases in the cost of energy.) Overall, the solutions proposed for global warming imply that wealthy countries owe a debt to the rest of humanity that should be paid due at once.

Those on the Right are more likely to see the wealth of developed countries as rightfully earned by their own industriousness, while those on the Left are more likely to view the disproportionate wealth as fundamentally unjust and likely caused by exploitation. The idea that wealthy countries must therefore be penalized and made to subsidize poor countries is one that aligns well with the Left’s views about rebalancing unfairness. An accentuating factor is the Right’s tendency to favor national autonomy and therefore to oppose global governance and especially international redistribution.

Hierarchy narratives also help to determine political positions on the wealth of corporations and individuals. On the Right, oil and gas companies (as well as electric utilities that utilize fossil fuels) are held to be a product of innovation and a source of wealth creation; the smartest and most deserving people and organizations found the most efficient ways to transform idle fossil fuel resources into the power that runs society and, consequently, have greatly enhanced human wellbeing. For conservatives, it is therefore fundamentally unjust to blame those corporations and individuals that have done so much for human progress. The counter-narrative from the Left is that greedy corporations and individuals exploited natural resources for their own gain at the expense of the planet and the general public. They therefore support policies that blame and punish the fossil fuel industry in the name of cosmic justice and atonement.

Global warming is a tragedy of the commons, in which logical agents act in ways that run counter to the longterm interests of the group. These types of “collective-action problems” usually call for top-down government intervention at the expense of individual action and responsibility. Furthermore, the longterm nature of global warming demands acquiescence to collective action across generations. This natural alignment of the global warming problem with collectivist themes makes the issue much more palatable to the Left than the Right.

In addition to these fundamental ideological issues, there are a number of circumstantial characteristics that contribute to polarization regarding global warming.

For instance, in the US, Al Gore was one of the political figures most responsible for bringing global warming into the national consciousness. Once a former vice president and presidential nominee became a flag-bearer for the environmentalist movement, it only increased the perception that this is a partisan issue.

There is also the longstanding claim by those on the Right that the global warming issue is a Trojan Horse intended to bring about all manner of unrelated changes desired by the Left. Books like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate and initiatives like the Green New Deal have done nothing to dispel this fear. For example, the Green New Deal Resolution includes the following proposals:

Providing all people of the United States with—(i) high-quality health care; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.


Guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.


Providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States, with a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities, so those communities may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization.

These objectives satisfy the Left’s policy goals. But, whatever the merits of those goals, it is not at all clear how they relate to global warming, if at all.

So, it should really not be particularly mysterious that opinions on global warming tend to divide along political lines. It is not because one side cleaves to dispassionate logic while the other remains obstinately wedded to political dogmatism. It is simply that the problem and its proposed solutions align more comfortably with the dogma of one side than the other. That does not mean, however, that the Left is equally out-of-step with the science of global warming as the Right. It really is the case that the Right is more likely to deny the most well-established aspects of the science. If skeptical conservatives are to be convinced, the Left must learn to reframe the issue in a way that is more palatable to their worldview.


Patrick T. Brown is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose State University, California. You can follow him on Twitter @PatrickTBrown31

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash


  1. A nice article. I want to throw something in not mentioned: Many adult religious conservatives in the United States do not believe the Earth is more than 10,000 years old (38% in 2017 according to Getty), and thus some of the most engaging data in the field of climate science will be ignored outright. What can be done to engage this cohort if they immediately discard relevant data? We had a critical disagreement long before Al Gore’s documentary…

  2. What a lot of people on the Right find irksome about the climate issue is that the left is only too happy to see climate change in every summer thunderstorm and every winter blizzard, yet at the same time automatically opposes real-world solutions to the carbon problem.

    I would like to see a cultural Great Climate Treaty. The right would agree to take climate science and greenhouse physics seriously; the left would agree on the need to replace our baseload fossil fuel usage with nuclear, and to allow large-scale geoengineering, such as ocean seeding, to sequester existing carbon.

  3. Although the article makes many valid points about people on different sides of the political spectrum being more disposed to favor certain POVs about global warming according to their pre-existing biases - there is also a patronizing neglect on the part of the author to acknowledge that some people might actually be principally motivated and focused on the science itself.

    For example, I consider myself a political conservative - yet my skepticism about anthropomorphic global warming catastrophism ( AGWC) is based on reading about the science. If I were to see compelling scientific evidence that the AGWC stance is accurate, I would be quite happy to change my current view. As it happens, I have many environmental concerns : water and air pollution, endangered species, overpopulation, etc.

    To be told that my stance is emotional and not based on science is condescending.

  4. Yes. If you actually take the time to look into the material of “deniers”, you’ll find that quite a lot of them are very good scientists, with good scientific objections. But according to the climate change establishment, no, the science is settled; there can be no dissent. Any scientist who dissents must be a paid shill of the fossil fuel industry. As such the dissenters are viciously attacked, censored, their careers in many cases destroyed.

    I agree with the implication of the author’s argument that it is idiotic to reach conclusions on complex issues primarily based on one’s political sensibilities. But, as you point out, he is neglecting to mention the fact that there is an entire group of people who oppose the science of climate change for non-political reasons entirely.

    That’s why, in my view, after seriously considering some of the dissenting scientific literature on climate change, as well as the intolerant orthodoxy that has grown up around the whole issue in academic and scientific institutions, not to mention the often shysty methods the principal proponents have employed to assure the world that the science is settled, and how viciously they seek to squash dissenters (and how often they succeed)… after considering all this, I have come to the conclusion that global warming is just the leftwing version of the war on terror; both are based on lies.

  5. People conflate the increase in global average temperatures (and its robust scientific basis) with the predicted catastrophes associated with it. We are very confident that temperatures are rising and that greenhouse gas emissions are part of the cause of that rise. However, many well-meaning people are just as confident that catastophe looms as a result, without scientific basis, as near as I can tell.

    The near total scientific consensus on warming falls apart when one surveys the same scientists on the expected severity of the consequences of global warming. ( Farnsworth and Lichter, 2011) Yet it is the severity of the catastrophe that people point to when they want to change policy.

    So. How confident are you that catastrophe comes in the next 100 years? How confident are you that we will not be able to adapt? Why? I have asked many people these questions, and I have yet to receive a good answer from a person on the left.

    ps: I found the F&L article here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveys_of_scientists'_views_on_climate_change

  6. The author is to be commended for reaching outside his bubble, but I will critique a miss.


    Those on the Right are more likely to see the wealth of developed countries as rightfully earned by their own industriousness, while those on the Left are more likely to view the disproportionate wealth as fundamentally unjust and likely caused by exploitation. The idea that wealthy countries must therefore be penalized and made to subsidize poor countries is one that aligns well with the Left’s views about rebalancing unfairness.

    From the Right’s perspective, the Left has woefully ahistoric tendencies. “Likely” implies a mythology, not facts. The Left has ignorantly mythologized the facts to fit their supposed origin of the current state- sometimes to fit environmental narratives, sometimes to fit power structure narratives- regardless, the past must have been whatever makes their current interpretation of reality logical.

    Applied point: Every time an apocalyptic environmentalist claims we have X years before things are irreversibly destroyed. The Left, using language symbolically and ahistorically, ascribes noble intention etc. The Right, actual being fact-based with regards to historic items, chalks it up to a hoaxster and recalls how many times they’ve “heard THAT one before.”

    The Right may be religious, but the Right values pragmatism and accuracy over emotion. Heartless conservatives, remember? Emotion is only brought in with the intent to manipulate.

    Or, control the histrionics that support your views, they hurt your case.

  7. “There is also the longstanding claim by those on the Right that the global warming issue is a Trojan Horse intended to bring about all manner of unrelated changes desired by the Left. Books like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate and initiatives like the Green New Deal have done nothing to dispel this fear”

    This is not a fear - it is an observation. Putting aside the rat-bag that is the Green New Deal, there is nothiing in the list of solutions for climate change that was not proposed by the radical Left long before climate change was first publicized. Conservatives can see through the fig leaf. .

  8. Whenever I see somebody use the term “climate change denier” - I know they are completely motivated by politics and know and/or care nothing about the actual science.

    Because, first of all “denier” is a term modeled after “Holocaust denier” - making it disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. Secondly, you can accept that the climate changes while questioning how much of the change is man-made, questioning whether the man-made component is significant compared to the natural component of warming gases, question how harmful the warming is, question when the warming will occur, question the validity of the models, etc. There are endless areas which should be subject to scrutiny - which is the very essence of science - questioning.

  9. Its hard to not be skeptical of something that comes with such outlandish apocalyptic claims. The solutions outlined for solving climate change are mostly untenable as well. The cost/benefit ratio is totally out of whack. I would not call myself a denier of climate change but I am certainly a skeptic of man made catastrophic climate change. The climate has been heating in recent history but we cant even agree on how much with much certainty and its hubris to think we know how much humans are contributing to it. That basically the climate is like a heater where we can dial the thermostat up or down on demand by manipulating emissions. I just cant buy into that. Give me a sensible plan that doesnt hammer the poor or destroy massive amounts of wealth and jobs and I’d be willing to listen. Still waiting.

  10. Quillette is making this too easy.
    It’s like shooting GENDER QUESTIONING fish in a RENEWABLE barrel.

    This guy exemplifies the self-unaware arrogance of the Left.
    “WE believe in ‘Science!’ Those knuckledraggers believe in DOGMA!”
    (…except when it comes to XX and XY…then all bets are off and it becomes a “Social Construct” or some other invented insanity)

    "A new study by researchers at Turku University in Finland found that the human contribution to a rise of 0.1°C in global temperatures over the last century is just 0.01°C.

    Kauppinen and Malmi conclude that global temperatures are controlled primarily by cloud cover and that “only a small part” of the increased carbon dioxide concentration is anthropogenic.

    The study also calls into question the claims of the UN IPCC, which concluded that global temperatures are largely driven by human activity.

    While the methods and results of the study can be debated, this once again illustrates how there is no overwhelming consensus on man-made global warming as the media often claims.

    THE PAPER: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1907.00165.pdf

  11. Thank you for a good read Mr. Brown.

    I am on the right side of things (pun fully intended) but I have always thought it was strange that care for the environment was considered a “left” issue. As a conservative I believe in slow moving change and that new is isn’t always better. Nature and preservation should be part of the conservative dialogue and for the most part isn’t. This article made a lot of sense as to what the appeals are on either side. I think articles like this can start a dialogue between two ideas of thought.

    I am not sure how much I believe in the over arching story of global warming being strictly a man-made. BUT It is not logical to deny the immediate harmful effects of poisoning your environment and thus poisoning yourself.
    (Spraying pesticides - bad for environment - ends in cancer. Using asbestos as insulation - bad for environment - ends in cancer. Plastics with BPA - bad for the environment - ends in cancer)
    I don’t really see that as being a left/right issue as much as self preservation/quality of life. I think most people left/right when presented with facts would agree that that is a bad idea for all involved. Many would not see as a political issue. What is a political issue is how to address.

    When I talk with people very much on the right and I discuss deep sea trawling, air quality in cities, and similar topics, most seem very in support of managing the situation. However, where I see a butting of heads is exaggeration and implementation.

    (Exaggeration)While I am against BPAs in plastics, I am not against all plastic usage. Sanitation is a big concern, plastics play huge roll in sanitation. My alarms start blaring the moment someone calls for ALL plastics to immediately be cut.

    (Implementation) I do have a bias as I live in California and understand this may be different in other states/countries. Whenever I hear that there is a plan to help the environment in CA I cringe. All the environmental laws just seem like virtue signaling. BAN on Plastic bags (actually we just mean replace with thicker bags that we can tax… for the environment) BAN plastic straws (even though this has little data backing the actual use of doing such. When you could ban styrofoam which has been proven to have significant environmental impact).

    There is such a huge concern about not polluting water BUT several CA beaches were rated as some of the unhealthiest beaches. https://healthebay.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/BRC_2019_FINAL2.pdf
    Yet we allow for homeless people to use RV’s outside of RV parks and look the other way when raw waste is put down the drains leading to the oceans. We also ignore the fact that neighboring Mexico flushes their waste and other toxins in the water which drifts right back over.

    For my ladies and fellows on the left, I am not saying that all of you are virtue signaling, I know most of you have genuine care and concern for the environment. It is the policies and politics of environmentalism are backwards thinking, illogical and pointlessly detrimental. I welcome thoughts and actions on how to fix this.


    a republican conservative

  12. The ‘science’ industry itself acknowledges a good deal of shenanigans in the workings of research and publication.

    To paraphrase someone famous; it’s the worst system of learning we have, except for every other one. The flip flops on what seem to be basic, relatively straight forward subjects, the ultimate cause of which we often learn to be politically based or the results of deliberate shenanigans, don’t inspire a lot of confidence.

    Worse, when we ‘conservatives’ point out shenanigans, real or imagined, we’re met with mockery, derision, and insults rather than, ‘here are the reasons we think X is true’.

    It’s not as if we don’t understand that knowledge changes with the revelation of new information. We get that, accept and applaud it.

    The IPCC is an agency of the UN. For that reason, what comes out of the IPCC is biased toward the goals of the UN. This should be an uncontroversial statement.

    After all, if I change the nouns a bit thusly: “EMRE is an agency of Exxon/Mobile. For that reason, what comes out of EMRE is biased toward the goals of Exxon”, no one is going to bat an eye. It’s self evident.

    The UN wants to be the world government. It needs a world wide, overarching issue upon which to elevate itself into that lofty position. This is self-evident.

    That fact does not automatically render everything coming out of the IPCC as utter nonsense any more than everything coming out of EMRE is utter nonsense. It does mean that when we look at their research, we should acknowledge the bias and keep it in mind.

    The UN, governments across the globe, and crony capitalist corporations see in AGW a means to gather power, money and resources under an big umbrella with the words, “we’re saving the world!” written across it.

    No doubt some are earnest in the belief they are trying to do good but I’d wager there are damned few of that type. It takes a particular brand of gullibility to imagine recycling, alternative energy and returning to horse drawn carriages will save the world. Such people are beyond reason.

    Whether humanity causes 1% of AGW or 100% isn’t really relevant. We lack the ability and wisdom to deliberately, effectively manipulate global climate. Whether the climate changes on its own or because of us, doesn’t matter. We adapt or die as has been the case since the beginning of life.

  13. " It really is the case that the Right is more likely to deny the most well-established aspects of the science"

    Nope. It really is the case that activist scientists refuse to engage publicly with highly-credentialled scientists such as Richard Lindzen.

    Until that happens - and not just a ten minute series of contradictions, but real, persistent discussion away from the peer-reviewed paywalls - empirical scepticism flourishes.

  14. The various discussed political dispositions certainly contribute to why people on the left and right disagree on this issue, but I think there is an even more fundamental distinction: the right is more cautious, and thus skeptical, by nature.

    Climate alarmism requires you to believe we can accurately estimate global temperature right now. That requires believing the global array of thermometers are accurate and we can accurately extrapolate between them for a global average. That’s the easy part: you must now believe that we have a similar accurate estimate of global temperature records going back decades. Then, you must accept that the hodgepodge of temperature proxies in the geological record are sound, and that you can extrapolate between them and across the geographically disparate regions. You must accept this despite the fact Earth sciences are notorious for not giving adequate consideration of uncertainties.

    Now, if you accept that warming is occurring, climate alarmism requires you to believe it is warming faster than it has been previously. Our Canadian readers are standing where 3 km of glacier existed 14000 years ago. There’s hard evidence that warming has been happening. You must be confident that recent measured warming is significantly faster than what was occuring before. Then you must be confident about how much of this warning is due to humans and how much is a continuation of natural warming.

    If you can be confident about the temperature record, the rate of warming, and the human impact, you must then believe there will be drastic negative consequences if the human component to the warming continues. Given nature is never static, you must believe that the consequence of this warming will be significantly worse than the regular warming the planet was already doing and the inevitable return to a glacial period.

    If you do believe the temperature records, the significant human influence, and the horrible consequences, to truly get on the global warming bandwagon you must believe that there is some feasible solution whose consequences would not be worse than those of global warming. You must believe the threat is sufficiently dire with sufficient certainty that a restructuring of the global economy is necessary.

    Conservatives get lost at every stage along the way here (and more, as I’m sure we’ll see in the comments).

  15. Precisely. What annoys me is the lack of effort by people to look into the issue. The CO2 warming theory relies purely on a general correlation between CO2 levels and the earth warming out of the Little Ice Age. Yet the correlation is not consistent nor evident on any time scale except the period from the late 70s to ~1998, when the pause began! This is acknowledged in Climategate emails, where they privately concede that though it looks like that warming has a human fingerprint for that one period, they can’t really say for sure! Note, the rise and fall of T during the 20th C and the retreat and advance of ice fits better with ocean cycles than CO2.

    They also are faced with the unfortunate fact that one of their own scientists, Phil Jones of Climategate fame, stated that the rate of temperature rise in the 1800s and the early part of the 20thC is the same as the recent one, despite lower CO2! So why, logically, would CO2 be identified as the culprit? To get around this, they say ‘Oh, but ‘other factors’ came into play’! A thirty year cooling period during the 20thC as CO2 increased? Other factors. Previous identical warming? Other factors. An 18 year pause as CO2 increased at the fastest rate? Other factors. This is NOT science. This is simply accepting, a priori without evidence, that CO2 has a significant effect on global temperature! Once you accept that proposition, of course you can add and subtract things to your recipe to make the cake rise! That is not how science works. The hypothesis is unfalsifiable if post hoc ‘other factors’ are simply added in to rescue their failed models!

    Here’s two key facts that immediately undermine the possibility of claiming CO2 plays a significant role. First, it is widely acknowledged they cannot adequately model the current climate system, it is simply too complex. How can they predict the future of such a dynamic system? They don’t KNOW all the variables now, let alone future ones! They can’t measure them, and even if they could, they can’t predict all the complex feed backs and interactions. Models are ‘convenient fictions’ according to Oxford climate modeler, Dr David Frame. Convenient indeed. Convenient for pushing a political and ideological agenda that has been co-opted by big business.

    Water vapour together with clouds (condensed water vapour) is responsible for the vast majority of the greenhouse effect. Why are the public not made aware of that? Any quick check of IPCC literature and scientific papers notes the limitations and uncertainty in the models. They can’t adequately account for clouds, which have a vastly bigger impact on earth’s temperature. Think about it. Even if there were only two variables to consider with all other variables constant (which they’re not), if you can’t measure the effects of the MAIN variable, let alone how it will behave in the future, how can you possibly detect and attribute any changes to the minor one???

    Other major factors deliberately sidelined, because they can’t be ‘blamed’ on humans include the SUN and oceanic cycles. The charter from the outset of the IPCC was to focus on CO2, because they agreed it ‘should’ cause global warming, and that’s what they’ve done.

    Don’t get me started on the data ‘adjustments’ and discarded data from older papers that don’t fit the narrative!

    It’s a scam of monumental proportions.

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