Climate Denial is a Sunday Truth

On Monday morning, the business community knows better.


Probably every religion has what in the Christian world is known as Sunday truth: those comfortable notions that make you nod and shout “Amen!” when you hear them from the pulpit, but which conveniently evaporate from your mind by Monday morning when you have to conduct serious business.

Centuries ago, Sunday truth was mostly moral: Lying is always bad; you should never take advantage of the helpless; charging interest on a loan is wrong; and other sweet ideas that businessmen found inconvenient. But when the scientific revolution got rolling in the 1600s, educated people began to experience a different kind of Sunday truth: You’d agree on Sunday that the Earth was the center of the universe, and then on Monday use Copernicus’ methods to compute the dates of future Easters.

From there it only got worse. Now there are biologists who nod on Sunday to the idea that evolution is a satanic lie, and then on Monday go back to work in a profession that makes no sense without the evolutionary theory that holds it all together. Professors of linguistics teach the Tower of Babel in Sunday school, then tell their secular students something completely different on Monday. Astronomers listen without objection when preachers tell them the universe is less than 10,000 years old, then work out better methods for detecting stars billions of light-years away. Geologists likewise acknowledge a young Earth on Sunday, and then (when they are searching for oil on Monday) look for rock formations millions of years old.

Critics of religion have slang for this tendency to forget everything your profession teaches you when you step inside a church: It’s called “checking your brain at the door” — a colorful phrase that conjures images of brains in cubbyholes waiting to be reclaimed when the service is over, as illustrated here by the Naked Pastor.

When political movements become ideologically extreme, they can develop their own forms of Sunday truth and build their own check-stations for brains. As in religion, you say things not because they are true, but because you want to stay in the community. If the community defines itself by a set of bizarre beliefs, then you loudly confess those beliefs in order to assert your identity as a member in good standing. But you’re not stupid, so you don’t act on those beliefs when people aren’t looking and you have serious decisions to make.

The business community understands this. This week I found myself reading a Bank of America/Merrill Lynch report urging its investment clients to invest in stocks related to water. It outlined the global pressures on water supplies, and then titled a section “Climate change is making things worse”:

Given how closely food, water and energy security are connected, an impending perfect storm of events appears to be looming for the food and energy sectors, in a world constrained by extreme weather and climate change.

No caveats, no footnotes, no if-this-turns-out-to-be-true. Politically, Bank of America’s contribution profile leans conservative; their top three recipients are the Republican National Committee and the national committees to elect Republicans to the House and Senate. But if you’re trusting Bank of America to advise you on investing, they want you to know that climate change is happening and you’d better adjust to it.

And that makes me wonder how many BoA/ML clients are making a similar distinction between Sunday and Monday truths. Your investments are between you and your broker, so maybe at that point Tea Partiers retrieve their brains from the check room and act on what they know is real: climate change.

Insurance companies (who also give more to Republicans than Democrats) have been adjusting to climate change for years, because this is money we’re talking about. It’s serious. You don’t choose ideology over science when there’s money on the line. Evan Mills watches the insurance industry’s response to climate change for Lawrence Berkeley National Lab:

Allstate, for instance, has said that climate change has prompted it to cancel or not renew policies in many Gulf Coast states, with recent hurricanes wiping out all of the profits it had garnered in 75 years of selling homeowners insurance (Conley 2007). The company has cut the number of homeowners’ policies in Florida from 1.2 million to 400,000 with an ultimate target of no more than 100,000. The company has curtailed activity in nearly a dozen other states. In 2008, State Farm—Florida’s largest private insurer—stopped writing new policies in the state (Garcia and Benn 2008). This was after suspending sales of new commercial and homeowners policies in Mississippi the year before (Tuckey 2007). A few months later, after being denied a 47% average rate increase, State Farm announced a complete pull-out, (Hays 2009). About 1.2 million customers will be affected. The Florida Insurance Commissioner referred to the decision as “unnecessary destabilization of the insurance market” (Hays 2009). The editor of trade magazine published an editorial about the problem entitled “Like a Bad Neighbor?” (Friedman 2009).

Also in 2008, Farmers announced that they would stop writing homeowners policies throughout North Carolina and not renew existing ones. Such decisions are not taken lightly; Farmers will forego $55 million in annual premiums but claims that losses would be twice this amount (Hemenway 2008). … Insurers are recognizing that simply raising prices to keep pace with the impacts of climate change may be an elusive undertaking.

Munich Re is a reinsurance company — its clients are primarily other insurance companies, not the general public — whose profitability depends on its accuracy in assessing risk. It describes climate change as “one of the greatest risks facing mankind”.

That’s how the business community acts on Monday mornings, when it’s doing serious work. But business is also an important part of the Republican establishment, and Republicanism has become an extreme ideological movement defined by bizarre beliefs, one of which is climate change denial. And so you have moments like this during the debate between GOP candidates for the Senate in North Carolina — one of those states where insurance companies are cutting back coverage because of climate change. “Is climate change a fact?” asks the moderator. Chuckles are heard in the audience and all four candidates — even the eventual winner Thom Tillis, supposedly the “establishment” candidate — say a curt “no”. (The Rand Paul candidate, Greg Brannon, adds: “God controls the climate.“, upstaging Mike Huckabee’s candidate, Mark Harris, who is supposed to represent the GOP’s evangelical wing.)

This is typical. After Jon Huntsman’s failure as the reality-based Republican presidential candidate, no one wants to take up that banner. Increasingly, rank-and-file Republicans (about half nationally*, including 61% of those who don’t identify as Tea Party) believe climate change is real, and about half of those attribute it to human activity. But what Republican leaders are willing to stand up in public and represent that position? Anybody?

Many of them know the facts. In late 2007, I sat in the front row at a John McCain town hall meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire, a few blocks from where I live. He told us emphatically that climate change was happening and the government needed to do something about it. The following May, he still whole-heartedly supported the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade bill. But by fall, his ads were implicitly against cap-and-trade, and by the time he ran for re-election to the Senate in 2010, he was openly against his own bill.

Such Galileo-like recantations are a standard feature of repressive religious environments. (See Romney and RomneyCare.) Did McCain learn something new that changed his mind? Don’t be silly; the scientific support for climate change just keeps getting stronger. But he needed to re-affirm his conservative identity, so he accepted conservative Sunday truth the same way he accepted Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The problem with adopting a Sunday truth, though, is that sometimes it’s not enough to nod and say “Amen!”; you may need to defend the Sunday truth against the infidels. And that can be difficult when you’re smart enough to know that it’s nonsense.

That’s what happened to Marco Rubio this week. He has already wrecked his position in the early presidential polls by trying to solve the immigration problem — a conservative candidate isn’t supposed to try to pass bipartisan legislation that addresses a problem — and even recanting hasn’t restored him to grace. He can’t afford to contradict the right-wing catechism anywhere else, so when conservative-friendly interviewer Jonathan Karl brought up climate change Rubio recited the Sunday truth:

I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. … And I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.

But sadly (for him) that wasn’t the end of it. Tuesday at the National Press Club he was asked: “What information, reports, studies or otherwise are you relying on to inform and reach your conclusion that human activity is not to blame for climate change?” He had to dodge, because he had been asserting his conservative identity, not championing a coherent theory that he adopted after prudent investigation. Instead, he put forward a new position:

The truth of the matter is the United States is a country. It is not a planet. … But for people to go out and say if you passed this bill that I am proposing, this will somehow lead us to have less tornadoes and hurricanes. And that’s what I take issue with.

In other words, the United States can’t fix climate change alone — a point even Al Gore wouldn’t dispute. So that response wasn’t satisfactory either, and Rubio had to go on Sean Hannity’s radio show and try again. This time he opted for distraction by flashing the big, shiny object of abortion: Liberals deny the settled science that human life begins at conception**, so why shouldn’t he deny the science of climate change?

I can’t imagine Rubio is endearing himself to the conservative base with these awkward gyrations. But that’s the problem when you show up on Monday morning spouting Sunday truth: You can’t give reasons, because you didn’t adopt the position for reasons. It’s about identity, not evidence or logic.

So that’s how you have to defend it. It’s simple, Marco: The Koch brothers said it. I believe it. That settles it.


* The recent trend line here might be suspect. A lot of polls that track opinion by party identification show a similar divergence between Republican and independent opinion. The reason isn’t that people in those camps are changing their minds in opposite directions, but that a lot of Tea Partiers have begun telling pollsters they’re independent rather than Republican.

** In addition to putting forward a two-wrongs-make-a-right argument — my denial of science doesn’t justify your denial of science — Rubio was also attacking a straw man. I’ve never heard any abortion-rights activist deny that a zygote is alive or that its DNA is human. The argument is about the point at which a fetus has developed sufficiently to merit the moral status we accord to a person. A typical abortion-rights position — mine, for example — is that a fetus grows into its personhood rather than being a person from conception. The disagreement is entirely moral and spiritual, and is unrelated to the science Rubio cites.

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Comments

  • Anonymous  On May 19, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Long live science! The process of constantly probing, evaluating assumptions, and testing theories. Your piece exemplifies a narrow, dogmatic, ideological approach that is fundamentally at its core anti-scientific.

    As the great physicist and current climate dogma sceptic Freeman Dyson wrote “The progress of science requires the growth of understanding in both directions, downward from the whole to the parts and upward from the parts to the whole. A reductionist philosophy, arbitrarily proclaiming that the growth of understanding must go only in one direction, makes no scientific sense. Indeed, dogmatic philosophical beliefs of any kind have no place in science.
    “The Scientist as Rebel” in New York Review of Books (25 May 1995)

    More great quotes from this towering intellect on the topic of science and religion:

    “Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.”

    “Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. “

    • weeklysift  On May 19, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      When you post a canned response that is only marginally related to the original article, it’s hard to be sure what you’re saying. Are you claiming that religion should play a role in deciding whether or not climate change is happening? That it’s not purely a scientific question?

      • Anonymous  On May 20, 2014 at 1:01 pm

        You started this post by arguing that religious people leave their intellects behind when they walk through the church doors. I thought the above quotes regarding the intellectual compatibility of religion and science an apt response to your assertion.

        And while I absolutely support any efforts towards good stewardship of the earth and her resources, so I’m happy enough with all the hullabaloo.

        I do happen to agree with the skeptics on climate change models as I think this earth and universe too complex a system to model her dynamics with much certainty. In my lifetime scientific modelling have sent up many chicken little panics – we were all going to starve, then fry from the lack of ozone then scorch in heat and drown in rising oceans.

        Any of those thing may or may not happen, but we should control emissions, pollution, moderate oil consumption and protect our oceans and wild life because taking care of our planet is just the right thing to do.

        Scientific models in fact any scientific theory as I understand it, should never be presented as fact, just the latest consensus about what available evidence implies.

      • weeklysift  On May 22, 2014 at 8:29 am

        What about the theory of gravity, or of the solar system?

      • Anonymous  On May 22, 2014 at 9:55 am

        As for the both the theory of gravity and the solar system – scientists continue, thank goodness, to study both intently – pluto was just downgraded from its former status as a planet not long ago. Consensus is a moving target, knowledge improves, theories change, text books are written and re written…that’s science.

      • weeklysift  On May 23, 2014 at 3:18 pm

        But that whole Earth-going-around-the-Sun thing — is that “just a theory”?

        What you describe about the solar system is comparable to what continues to happen with regard to both climate change and evolution: Within a stable overall consensus, scientists continue to refine the details.

  • Anonymous  On May 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    The author also interestingly admits his take on the relative nature of human rights – which according to the author are not inherent or universal at all but instead bestowed or granted by other more privileged and powerful human beings.

    It is the ancient and forever, however false, claim that has buttressed human rights abuses through the ages. This idea that a select group of human beings aren’t worthy of the rights associated with being human, unless and until other more powerful human beings deem them to be.

    Universal human rights deniers still with us today, even in this age.

    • weeklysift  On May 19, 2014 at 1:52 pm

      For all the question-begging rhetoric around the human rights of fertilized eggs, as best I can tell NO ONE actually believes in it. If any one did, the fact that the majority of fertilized eggs spontaneously abort before implanting in the uterus would strike them as the greatest health problem of all time. But no one cares about that issue — there are no clinics devoted to solving it — because (whatever pro-lifers may claim) no one really believes that fertilized eggs are worth agonizing over, except as a political issue.

      • Anonymous  On May 20, 2014 at 12:48 pm

        Universal Human Rights is a natural law, one of the great and profound truths of this life. There is no great tragedy or great crisis associated with natural death. Everyone dies, hopefully from natural causes. It is the purposeful termination of the life of one human being by another that is unnatural, a tragedy and contrary to natural law and most certainly a human rights abuse.

      • weeklysift  On May 22, 2014 at 8:00 am

        But half to two-thirds of the human race dies of the same cause! Before it gets a chance to live at all! If you believe that, it’s way worse that heart disease or cancer or any other health problem people are scrambling to cure. But no one is scrambling because NO ONE BELIEVES IT.

      • Anonymous  On May 22, 2014 at 10:07 am

        It’s not because they don’t believe it, it’s because there happens to be a consensus at the moment (which could always change) that there is not much that can be done in terms of intervention to prevent a failure to implant in the womb. Contrary to what you seem to think, there is quite a lot of research on the health and well being of these human beings whom you claim no one cares about or can be bothered to study. Neo-natology, developmental biology and ontogeny are among the fields of scientific inquiry related to our smallest ones.

      • weeklysift  On May 23, 2014 at 3:12 pm

        Have any memorial services been held for these billions of souls? Any prayer campaigns to get God to release humanity from this horrible plague?

        The personhood of fertilized eggs is an ad hoc belief that is applied only when talking about abortion. It is not a serious part of anyone’s worldview, even if some people do imagine that they believe it.

      • Anonymous  On May 25, 2014 at 2:25 pm

        For the many lost souls that did not implanted, no one knew it happened. It is impossible to detect and therefore mourn or commemorate.

        When a pregnancy has been detected and lost it is very much mourned and commemorated. Have you never spoken to a woman who has undergone a miscarriage? Have you never spoken to man who has lost a child to a miscarriage. Being a woman who has had two miscarriages and talked to many women that have had miscarriages – it’s quite common as you point out – all I can say to you is that you are unequivocally wrong. Women and men both grieve miscarriages. Any woman, that like me has experienced it before, prays to whatever god she believes in or not and sheds tears of abject relief at the 12 week scan that indicates all is well with a little one. Talk to any ultrasound technician for confirmation.

        It’s a strange sort of politics you have that steadfastly denies the realities of life.

      • weeklysift  On May 26, 2014 at 7:42 am

        You continue to dodge the point: If anyone really believed that billions of souls were being wiped out — a scourge worse than the Black Death — they would behave very differently.

        I do sympathize with people who want to be parents, who have attached their hopes to an bundle of cells with the potential to become a son or daughter. But they are looking at that bundle through the eyes of hope. Their vision should not bind people in a different situation.

      • Anonymous  On May 26, 2014 at 8:45 am

        I disagree on two points. First let me state unequivocally that I do not accept your argument that human rights apply only to human beings that “we care about.” Human rights are not a popularity contest. They are inherent to the human condition, and not in any way relative to whether “others” care about a human being or not. I worry that by addressing you on this subject that I unwittingly justifying an argument which I find profoundly unjustifiable.

        But secondly, the argument that people don’t care about fertilised eggs is also incorrect. The current case before the highest court in the land regarding abortive birth control is case in point as are the many many advocates of natural family planning. The recent headlines about the protest against AHA’s birth control mandate are proof that your argument does not stand. People do care. People do act on their beliefs – commemorative service or not.

      • weeklysift  On May 26, 2014 at 11:26 am

        They care about birth control for the same reason they care about abortion: controlling other people’s sex lives. That’s the root issue.

  • Brent Holman  On May 19, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Farmers also are aware that the climate is changing, & they would like an immigration bill as well.

  • weeklysift  On May 20, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Before I posted this, I wish I had read this article from ThinkProgress:

    “Last month, Farmers Insurance Co. filed nine class-action lawsuits arguing that local governments in the Chicago area are aware that climate change is leading to heavier rainfall but are failing to prepare accordingly. The suits allege that the localities did not do enough to prepare sewers and stormwater drains in the area during a two-day downpour last April.”

    • Anonymous  On May 21, 2014 at 4:48 pm

      How can Farmers Insurance file a class action lawsuit? What’s the class? Insurance companies?

      • weeklysift  On May 22, 2014 at 7:58 am

        I haven’t found a description of the class. Everyone who was damaged by the back-up of the drains, I would guess.

    • Anonymous  On May 27, 2014 at 10:40 pm

      Hmmm, I’m skeptical about this. As an illustration of the idea that the business community takes global warming seriously – no problem. As something that should prevail in court – not so much.

      I don’t think that the law allows anyone to file a class action for a class that they don’t belong to. So Farmers insurance considers itself to be an injured party here. Injured how? Presumably because they had to pay insurance claims to people who bought insurance from them who later had property damage because of the drains.

      Analyzing risk is one of the key activities of insurance companies. Their analysis apparently didn’t take into account the state of the infrastructure in those communities. Therefore, their losses were due to their own bad risk analysis. They should not get any reimbursement from the communities because of their own bad risk analysis.

      Whether or not the communities should be doing more to mitigate the effects of global warning on the citizens of the community is a separate discussion and it doesn’t involve Farmers Insurance.

      • weeklysift  On May 28, 2014 at 9:09 am

        I’m sure that point will be argued in court.

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  • By Owning and Disowning | The Weekly Sift on May 26, 2014 at 11:53 am

    […] on last week’s article “Climate Denial is a Sunday Truth” in which I argued that the business community — especially the insurance industry […]

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