The United States’ response to coronavirus has been a failure, with more than 140,000 Americans dead and case numbers rapidly increasing. Internationally, many former hotspots have had great success — Italy averages just 200 new cases a day, while the U.S. has more than 300 times that amount (about 60 times more per capita).
Science denial has exacerbated the pain — despite increasing cases, many still refuse to wear masks or follow distancing protocols. And the threats of science denial aren’t limited to the pandemic: this experience mirrors that of climate change, the greatest challenge of the 21st century. To overcome denial, we need to understand its causes. Perhaps counterintuitively, it doesn’t stem from a lack of information, but from a lack of trust in scientists to provide objective information on politicized topics. Fighting science denial requires demonstrating how science-based policy is good for everyone, not just a few groups.
The “information deficit” hypothesis of science denial, which says deniers just don’t know the facts, is perhaps viscerally satisfying, but it doesn’t reflect how scientific literacy affects political positions. Belief in man-made climate change maps onto partisan boundaries, with more Democrats believing the scientific consensus.
Among Democrats, these beliefs scale with education level — from 58% for high school graduates to 86% with postgraduate educations. But for Republicans, this trend is nonexistent — about 20% believe the consensus, with no difference based on education. The divide can’t be explained by general tests of scientific literacy, where both parties score about the same. However, there are large differences in how well each party thinks scientists understand the climate system, with Democrats trusting scientists more. The issue, then, is not general scientific literacy and training, but trust in a group of scientists on a politicized issue.
The perceived politics of climate solutions drive this lack of trust. Republicans have worried that climate plans will gut small towns, make consumer prices more expensive, and lead to government overreach. Even more, they may compromise national security by allowing China to outpace U.S. economic growth. More fancifully, some commentators have suggested the climate movement is a front for socialism, or an attempt to destroy the American way of life. No wonder then that many conclude the scientists are compromised.
To address science denial, we must demonstrate climate policies are good for everyone. The good news is that science-based policies which address common concerns already exist. Take, for example, the Baker-Schultz carbon dividend plan, sponsored by Reagan and Bush-era Secretaries of State and endorsed by leading conservative economists like Greg Mankiw. The plan passes revenue from a carbon tax directly to taxpayers to the tune of $2,000 per year, more than enough to address higher consumer prices. In many cases, clean energy will save us money — three quarters of U.S. coal plants could be replaced by a cheaper wind or solar plant serving the same area. Building a new green infrastructure means new manufacturing jobs, helping communities where fossil fuel companies are major employers; even better, green energy jobs generally pay more than fossil fuel jobs for the same qualifications. Climate leadership is also good for national security while energy independence will help the U.S. withdraw from the Middle East, saving money and reducing the threat of terrorism.
Demonstrating how policies help everyone doesn’t mean constraining our ambitions. Indeed, ambitious demands for climate action resulted in the most aggressive climate plan released by a major party, and it would be a mistake to compromise on these goals. Expanding the range of arguments would force science deniers to take losing positions on jobs, consumer prices, and national security, while policies which do well on these issues will help convince people of the underlying science. Emphasizing shared concerns is the best way to build bridges, and our best hope for an effective, united and science-based America.
Tim Csernica is a Lewisburg resident and Ph.D. candidate at the California Institute of Technology, where he studies geochemistry and the origin of life.