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.