The Climate Change Culture War

Picture: Joost J. Bakker (CC)

Picture: Joost J. Bakker (CC)

Andrew Sullivan writes:

Tim McDonnell ponders the results of a new study that gave liberals and conservatives the choice between conventional light bulbs and the more energy-efficient compact fluorescents:

Both bulbs were labeled with basic hard data on their energy use, but without a translation of that into climate pros and cons. When the bulbs cost the same, and even when the CFL cost more, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy the efficient bulb. But slap a message on the CFL’s packaging that says “Protect the Environment,” and “we saw a significant drop-off in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option,” said study author Dena Gromet, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

… Gromet said she never expected the green message to motivate conservatives, but was surprised to find that it could in fact repel them from making a purchase even while they found other aspects, like saving cash on their power bills, attractive. The reason, she thinks, is that given the political polarization of the climate change debate, environmental activism is so frowned upon by those on the right that they’ll do anything to keep themselves distanced from it.

This is really a form of tribal nihilism. One party has become entirely about a posture, not a set of feasible policies. I can see no reason whatever that conservatism must mean destroying the environment – or refusing to do even small ameliorative things that can help. There should be a robust conservative critique of liberal approaches to climate change, but the point is to get a better grip on slowing that change and more effectively protecting the environment by conservative ideas and principles. Snark is not a policy, although it may be a successful talk radio gimmick.

The trouble is that the talk radio gimmickry now defines an entire political party. Kevin Drum sighs:

On the right, both climate change and questions about global limits on oil production have exited the realm of empirical debate and become full-blown fronts in the culture wars. You’re required to mock them regardless of whether it makes any sense. And it’s weird as hell. I mean, why would you disparage development of renewable energy? If humans are the ultimate creators, why not create innovative new sources of renewable energy instead of digging up every last fluid ounce of oil on the planet?

I can remember when even Glenn Reynolds wanted an all-of-the-above approach to tackle climate change because energy innovation was a no-brainer, even if it didn’t always work out.

37 Comments on "The Climate Change Culture War"

  1. The Well Dressed Man | May 4, 2013 at 6:20 pm |

    I’m slightly surprised that this doesn’t surprise me. The culture wars have polarized the US to the point that energy efficiency is offensive to some groups. There’s got to be a better way to spin this. Could an appeal to ideas such as “Patriotism” or “Nationalism” work to point out the collective good of efficiency? It seems this tactic was extremely effective during the WW2 period. It’s odd in this context that “Conservative” and “Conservation” have the same root, but seem so far apart politically.

    • There’s so much on all sides of the culture wars that cuts down on free speech. It makes me nostalgic for the “PC” days of the ’90s, when even those espousing PCism knew there was something not quite right with what they were demanding – at least to the extreme.

    • Jin The Ninja | May 5, 2013 at 2:25 pm |

      patriotism and nationalism are hardly values in need of promotion, and are not only detrimental in this context but also in and of themselves.

      • The Well Dressed Man | May 6, 2013 at 2:37 am |

        Do you believe that the end can actually sometimes justify the means? A little flag waving seems a small price to pay if it could motivate a large percentage of the world’s biggest energy users to change their ways.

        • Jin The Ninja | May 6, 2013 at 2:53 am |


          it wouldn’t.

          • The Well Dressed Man | May 6, 2013 at 3:03 am |

            I feel that this difference is exactly one of the reasons the Fox/Limbaugh/Rove Republicans have held on to so much power in the US.

          • Jin The Ninja | May 6, 2013 at 10:30 am |


            the reason ‘the right’ has so much power in the US, is that the US is a single party state with a corporate board of paymasters who have no interest outside of profit.

          • The Well Dressed Man | May 7, 2013 at 1:11 am |

            Any suggestions for how we might promote the conservation of resources?

          • Jin The Ninja | May 7, 2013 at 11:39 am |

            rid ourselves of the structures and systems that require endless growth and resource extraction.

          • The Well Dressed Man | May 12, 2013 at 12:18 am |

            I’m glad you’ve given the matter so much thought!

  2. If Jesus was real, he would approve of taking care of the environment.

  3. people on the Right have been fooled, deliberately, into thinking that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy. Couple that to the appalling belief in the Second Coming of Christ (any day now, we promise!) and you’ve got self-righteous gold for the mouth-breathing morons of Christendom.

    • Anarchy Pony | May 4, 2013 at 9:27 pm |

      There’s a massive fundamentalist christian influence on policy in totally ignoring our need to ensure protection of the environment and conservation of resources, because of the whole be fruitful and multiply and go forth and subdue the earth garbage. And the whole spiel about the world not coming to the end until god decides it’s the end. Fucking up the environment and wasting valuable resources won’t end the world, but it will make it a really shitty fucking place to live.

      • that behavior sounds sociopathic, doesn’t it?

        • Jin The Ninja | May 5, 2013 at 12:26 pm |

          coupled with the other right ideologues who believe nature is inherently evil, and the market a benevolent and taming influence. it is not only sociopathic but self-hating and anti-humanist.

    • “the mouth-breathing morons of Christendom.” That has such a nice ring to it.

    • ishmael2009 | May 5, 2013 at 6:58 pm |

      >implying that it’s only American fundamentalist Christians who question the theory of catastrophic global warming. Not everyone lives in America, Ray.

      • Anarchy Pony | May 5, 2013 at 8:26 pm |

        The Thread is about the American “culture war’s” effect on global warming action and environmental protection. Do catch up.

  4. BuzzCoastin | May 4, 2013 at 9:18 pm |

    the problem with the Climate Debate
    is that it’s not a liberal or conservative problem
    it’s an information problem

    this statement for example:
    “CFL cost more, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy the efficient bulb…”
    it’s a gross generalization, only true in certain circumstances

    and CLF bulbs cause serious environmental damage when “thrown away”
    they are not ore efficient for short term use
    and LED lights are much more efficient & have less environmental impact

    but the bigger problem is not climate change
    it’s the desertification of the Earth’s arable land
    due to industrial, petrochemical farming
    climate change is the knockout punch to that fiasco

    • Good LED lights have just barely made it onto the market, so it’s no wonder they are not mentioned as much. Also the small quantity of mercury in CFL bulbs has become a talking point about 2 or so years ago. Both higher efficiency bulbs are more expensive, so I feel this may affect the slow adoption by those less involved in the environment. It is true that the long term savings beat the short term cost of incandescent, which will be moot because of the phase out.

      • BuzzCoastin | May 4, 2013 at 10:53 pm |

        actually, LED quality is way up
        but costs are not competitive with gov subsidized CFLs
        in about 5 years unsubsidized LED will dominate
        assuming government subsidies for electricity consumption decline
        most of the US pays way below market price for fossil fueled electricity

        all new WalMarts are 100% LED
        all WalMart parking lots will LED in 5 years or less

        • They solved the harsh light for the LED and also the heat problem. I want some, but they cost quite a bit. That’s good that Walmart is going the LED route. It helps to lower the prices for consumers to purchase LEDs.

          • They also have yet to solve the weight problem, from what I can tell.

            Yes, LEDs weigh a bit more than the other types of bulbs. I have a couple of them, notice it with the way the multi-bulb fixtures hang.

          • I didn’t know that. I eyeball them every time I am in the store. Eventually I will get my hands on some.

          • Anarchy Pony | May 5, 2013 at 1:35 am |

            I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed a heating problem with LEDs.

          • LED lighting is very susceptible to heat, so until someone figured out an efficient method of cooling, they didn’t last very long. Right now the two methods for that are heat sinks and liquid cooled. The latter is the newest method.

  5. What will the effects of millions of CLF bulbs and all that dangerous Mercury have on our Environment???

    • I would say less of an effect OVERALL, compared with the coal we’d have had to mine otherwise.

      Of course, the problem is a bit more focused with the CFL bulbs, compared with the dispersal of burned coal. Once the CFL enters your home YOU’RE responsible for it, and while I’m not concerned with them breaking I know various governments are.

  6. sometimes we wait for criminals to die
    sometimes we don’t

  7. If a dem or a liberal likes something, they hate it. If most dems, or most liberals like it, they get rabid. And so too, if the ‘left’ doesn’t like something, or thinks it is morally wrong (fake wars, torture, capital punishment, mentally ill being homeless and the poor going hungry, for instances), the right will fight for the status quo with made up silly reasons.

    • ishmael2009 | May 5, 2013 at 6:57 pm |

      It must be great to see the world in such simplistic, black and white terms. No moral ambiguities, no shades of grey, just goodies versus baddies.

  8. HowardBrazee | May 5, 2013 at 8:43 am |

    While the Right is an easy target here for so many ways they select what to buy in to, progressives aren’t immune to this. An example is people choosing to buy the very visible Prius over the better mileage rating Volkswagen diesel. Which doesn’t have battery disposal problems.

    But for every example I can find on the left, I find dozens on the right. Of course True Believers on both sides will argue that these aren’t valid examples – their biases are based on Truth.

  9. ishmael2009 | May 5, 2013 at 6:51 pm |

    This seems to be more about scoring political points than finding a constructive way forward – exactly the fault it purports to criticise.

    Conservationism and ecology both have their roots in conservative ideology (see Bramwell, Lewis, Conford et al., so it shouldn’t be too hard to be able to come up with a neutral approach that people of a conservative disposition can support. Not calling for more taxes and redistributionist schemes would seem to be a good start.

  10. I think the real culture war is the fraud that this choice of lightbulbs is a left-wing issue at all. Environmentalism and Green Party politics is rooted in fascism and old Tories, not the Left. One of the founders of the WWF was a Dutch Prince. People using more expensive, hyped bulbs made in China that contain mercury over cheap tungsten lightbulbs is not a Left-Right issue at all. It’s about patents and upping costs for low-income consumers. Why not go after house lighting designs where people use twenty bulbs instead of a single floor lamp? Why is the consumer always the target for these campaigns and not businesses?

    What is it is trying to take Labour out of the Left and replace it with greenie bullshit so the banks can get their carbon exchanges up and running and governments can have yet another tax to gut what remains of the middle class.

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