After the devastation wreaked by Harvey on Houston – devastation that was right in line with meteorologists’ predictions – you might have expected everyone to take heed when the same experts warned about the danger posed by Hurricane Irma. But you would have been wrong.
On Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh accused weather scientists of inventing Irma’s threat for political and financial reasons: “There is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it,” he declared, adding that “fear and panic” help sell batteries, bottled water, and TV advertising.
He evacuated his Palm Beach mansion soon afterward.
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In a way, we should be grateful to Limbaugh for at least raising the subject of climate change and its relationship to hurricanes, if only because it’s a topic the Trump administration is trying desperately to avoid. For example, Scott Pruitt, the pollution- and polluter-friendly head of the Environmental Protection Agency, says that now is not the time to bring up the subject – that doing so is “insensitive” to the people of Florida. Needless to say, for people like Pruitt there will never be a good time to talk about climate.
So what should we learn from Limbaugh’s outburst? Well, he’s a terrible person – but we knew that already. The important point is that he’s not an outlier. True, there weren’t many other influential people specifically rejecting warnings about Irma, but denying science while attacking scientists as politically motivated and venal is standard operating procedure on the American right. When Donald Trump declared climate change a “hoax,” he was just being an ordinary Republican.
And thanks to Trump’s electoral victory, know-nothing, anti-science conservatives are now running the U.S. government. When you read news analyses claiming that Trump’s deal with Democrats to keep the government running for a few months has somehow made him a moderate independent, remember that it’s not just Pruitt: Almost every senior figure in the Trump administration dealing with the environment or energy is both an establishment Republican and a denier of climate change and of scientific evidence in general.
And almost all climate change denial involves Limbaugh-type conspiracy theorizing.
There is, after all, an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities are warming the planet. When conservative politicians and pundits challenge that consensus, they do so not on the basis of careful consideration of the evidence – come on, who are we kidding? – but by impugning the motives of thousands of scientists around the world. All of these scientists, they insist, motivated by peer pressure and financial rewards, are falsifying data and suppressing contrary views.
This is crazy talk. But it’s utterly mainstream on the modern right, among pundits – even anti-Trump pundits – and politicians alike.
Why are U.S. conservatives so willing to disbelieve science and buy into tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories about scientists? Part of the answer is that they’re engaged in projection: That’s the way things work in their world.
Some disillusioned Republicans like to talk about a golden age of conservative thought, somewhere in the past. That golden age never existed; still, there was a time when some conservative intellectuals had interesting, independent ideas. But those days are long past: Today’s right-wing intellectual universe, such as it is, is dominated by hired guns who are essentially propagandists rather than researchers.
And right-wing politicians harass and persecute actual researchers whose conclusions they don’t like – an effort that has been vastly empowered now that Trump is in power. The Trump administration is disorganized on many fronts, but it is systematically purging climate science and climate scientists wherever it can.
So as I said, when people like Limbaugh imagine that liberals are engaged in a conspiracy to promote false ideas about climate and suppress the truth, it makes sense to them partly because that’s what their friends do.
But it also makes sense to them because conservatives have grown increasingly hostile to science in general. Surveys show a steady decline in conservatives’ trust in science since the 1970s, which is clearly politically motivated – it’s not as if science has stopped working.
It’s true that scientists have returned the favor, losing trust in conservatives: More than 80 percent of them now lean Democratic. But how can you expect scientists to support a party whose presidential candidates won’t even concede that the theory of evolution is right?
The bottom line is that we are now ruled by people who are completely alienated not just from the scientific community, but from the scientific idea – the notion that objective assessment of evidence is the way to understand the world. And this willful ignorance is deeply frightening. Indeed, it may end up destroying civilization.