The Sinister Underbelly of Climate Warming Denial
by David Mattson
The last few days of June 2018 saw most people in the United States sweltering in an epic heat wave. High temperatures were uniformly between 90 and 110 degrees in a mind-boggling 17 states . Heat indices in parts of the East and Midwest approached 120 degrees. Heat Advisories or Excessive Heat Warning were issued by the National Weather Service for all or parts of 21 states. Hazardously poor air quality arising from the reaction of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides with sunlight and heat compounded the agony in 9 states.
On top of this, catastrophic drought gripped the southwestern US , largely the product of a devastatingly dry winter. Snowpack during the winter of 2017-2018 in mountains south of a line running roughly through mid-Nevada, Utah, and Colorado was nearer 0% than 100% of normal—hardly worth even being called “snowpack.”
And virtuous Americans were not the only ones suffering. Near-record heat and drought was scorching northern Europe, fanning peat fires in England. Plus an all-time record minimum temperature of 109 degrees was recorded amidst the baseline excessive heat of Oman.
Meanwhile, the northern Rocky Mountains, where I live, was basking in near-normal June temperatures while being bathed in near 170% of normal rainfall—a factoid that will no doubt be seized upon by people obsessed with denying the reality of human-driven climate warming.
Climate Warming is Real
But climate warming is real, as is the role of humans. All of the recent weather patterns we’ve been experiencing—locally, as well as globally—are precisely what climate scientists have predicted will accompany climate warming. Extremes will amplify, especially of heat, storms, seasonal precipitation, and drought. But these extremes will be—and have been—piggy-backed on a steady increase in average annual and seasonal temperatures going back to the 1980s, with increases greatest for minimum daily temperatures .
I am in good company when I invoke this evidence and unambiguously assert the reality of climate warming. Contrary to the claims of conservative demagogues, there is near unanimity about the reality of human-driven climate warming among scientists who have studied climate and climate change. In fact, more than 95% of such scientists agree on this fact . And to claim that such consensus is the result of a conspiracy requires either mind-boggling ignorance about the nature of scientific inquiry or highly disturbing and deeply sinister motives. Yet roughly 30% of Americans don’t believe that climate warming is happening and/or that recent warming is largely caused by human activities .
Interestingly, this is roughly the same percentage of American adults who offer Trump their unwavering support, despite him being the vilest politician to take center stage in living memory. (I will return to this consilience shortly.)
How Can This Be?
Scientists of all sorts, but especially those studying climate, are confounded and distressed by the fact that there are so many doubters among American adults, and that so many more, even among believers, dismiss the consequences of unfolding climate change and are unwilling to make the radical changes needed to avert a catastrophe, not just for humans, but for all life on Earth.
How can this be?
This simple question has led to a veritable cottage industry of inquiry into the psychological, social, and political drivers of climate warming denial. After roughly 20-years of experiments and surveys, some more-or-less definitive conclusions have been reached, several of which initially surprised me. Yet the proffered explanations make a disturbing sort of psycho-pathologic sense.
Drivers of Disbelief
One unsurprising result is prominent, though. People who are more scientifically literate tend to be more trusting of science, put more credence in a scientific consensus, and, as a result, believe that human-driven climate warming is happening [e.g., 6]. So we humans are not completely irrational or craven.
But then things get interesting—even disquieting. Even when considering all sorts of psychological and social factors, it turns out that political ideology and affiliation is, at least proximally, a dominant determinant of belief in anthropogenic climate warming . Not religiosity nor as much other worldviews, attitudes, and orientations. In other words, everything else aside, self-identified political conservatives cum Republicans are the most committed disbelievers and, among those, the best educated (paradoxically) the most strident of all . In other words, conservative elites of a Republican persuasion are the standard bearers of skepticism. Surprisingly, they are expressly less amenable to persuasion by evidence than their more poorly educated political base. As a corollary, those who are most devoted to a free-market ideology (think conservative Wall Street tycoons and their minions) are also committed disbelievers .
But, then, there is more lurking beneath the veneer of political conservatism, party affiliation, and current articles of faith.
An additional ample corpus of research has shown that political conservatives have a definitive modal psychological profile. For one, they live in a heightened state of existential terror fueled by fear of death and alien “others” that inclines them to seek solace in hard cognitive and societal boundaries . As a derivative, they tend to be more committed to tradition and the status quo, especially to the extent that such arrangements privilege them [e.g., 11]. As a further derivative, they are often eager to perpetuate the harm embedded in inequality and hierarchical social arrangements [e.g., 12]. All of this is infused with a bestiary of bigotry, including sexism, racism, and ethnic narcissism [e.g., 13, 14]. In this country such folks are disproportionately white males who, not coincidentally, are feeling increasingly beset by global dynamics enforcing a sort of inevitable leveling.
Manipulating the Masses
An evidence-based reconstruction of climate warming skepticism then follows:
Educated but mostly-white conservative businessmen and political servants/allies recognize a threat to their current near strangle-hold on power and wealth arising from calls to address rampant climate warming. They see those who promote alternative climate-cooling lifestyles and technologies as enemies to their existing entitlements, certainly profits and power. They are, moreover, inclined to be bigots. Being clever, they mobilize their equally bigoted but less educated, less cognitively capable, and exceedingly fearful base comprised largely of increasingly disadvantaged white males by appealing to their interest in maintaining the status quo and inflaming their fear of an alien intrusive world, manifest as “immigration” and “immigrants.” National chauvinism also plays well. Onto this, the conservative elites graft a disbelief in climate warming [15, 16] and aversion to socialized health care, neither of which is axiomatic to being white, threatened, and not particularly well-educated. But both threaten profit-making engines benefiting established capitalist elites. Adherence to these agendas then becomes part of a larger self-reinforcing and polarizing belief system that will not abide deviation [17, 18].
And it is not by coincidence that these very people, churned by the a similar manipulative machinery, voted en masse for Donald Trump, the most egregious denier of anthropogenic climate warming to ever attain high political office. He is—also not coincidentally—the most blatant presidential spokesperson for bigotry as well as inequality, privilege, and corporate interests that we have seen in the last 80 years.
Yes, a bit speculative, but I am again in the good company of many intelligent as well as diligent scholars who have tried to make sense of an ostensibly irrational, superficially inexplicable, phenomenon.
Yet More Mystery
But, then, given all of this, there is something even more ostensibly mystifying that has intruded upon the national stage, again involving the issue of climate warming. In this instance it involves federal government bureaucrats employed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and charged by society with implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to recover and restore imperiled species—the very sorts of people you would expect to deploy science with the highest integrity.
But they haven’t…and don’t.
A Brief History of Grizzly Bears
The treatment of grizzly bears by Fish & Wildlife Service bureaucrats is emblematic. Grizzlies were listed as threatened under the ESA in 1975, including the population centered on Yellowstone National Park. Shortly after this population began to register a numeric recovery from its 1980s nadir, the Fish & Wildlife Service began plotting to remove protections. Time after time they tried, and time after time they were thwarted in Court, and for good reason. Early in the last decade, in a series of court dramas lasting from 2007 to 2009, Federal Judges essentially reprimanded agency managers for egregiously mishandling—even ignoring—highly relevant science. Such reprimands by a Court are highly unusual. Almost invariably federal agencies are given deference on technical scientific matters. But in these cases the malfeasance by agency bureaucrats was so blatant that Judges at the District and Appellate Court level felt compelled to act.
The Fish & Wildlife Service took another run at removing ESA protections from Yellowstone grizzly bears beginning in 2013. This time round, the effects of climate warming were in much greater focus, whether because of direct or indirect effects on bear foods and bear behaviors—recent or foreseeable. Much to the amazement of every outside scientist, the Service concluded in a final 2016 rule removing ESA protections  that climate change had not had and would never have any detrimental effect on this isolated and relatively small population of bears.
Yes Fish & Wildlife Service, Climate Change is Real
In reality, climate warming had already entrained several damaging and demonstrable changes, with more promised for the future. Three of four critical bear foods had suffered major if not catastrophic declines, with the fourth likely to nearly disappear during the next 75 years, all directly or indirectly attributable to climate warming. By contrast, there are no foreseeable positive changes on the climate-warming horizon.
To wit, we have lost between 50 and 70% of seed producing whitebark pine in a single decade due to an outbreak of bark beetles unleashed by increasing warmth. Spawning cutthroat trout had been functionally extirpated as a bear food by a combination of predation by non-native lake trout and deteriorating hydrologic conditions, the latter driven by climate change. Elk populations had declined substantially—in instances to near local extirpation—in part attributable to deteriorating summer range conditions, in turn caused by increasing late-summer drought. And the last food, alpine-dwelling army cutworm moths, is almost certain to disappear from the high country with projected 90% losses of alpine habitats during the next century. (For more on all of this, see ).
And in the wake of these losses, Yellowstone grizzly bears have been increasingly turning to eating human-associated meat that draws them into conflict with people and eventual near-certain death. As a result, retaliation for livestock depredation and encounters with elk hunters have become the most common causes of mortality for grizzlies in this ecosystem.
Yes, climate warming is real, with real-life past and prospective future dire consequences for grizzly bears.
Yet More Willful Denial
As with willful ignorance on the part of the conservative electorate, the willful denial of climate warming by people who are scientifically literate and presumably concerned about the environment—but buried within the bowels of a technocratic federal agency—begs for some sort of explanation. In the case of grizzly bears, an explanation is not too hard to find.
The reasons have to do with basic human motivations—primarily access to money, power, and privilege, but mediated by the machinery and culture of a federal natural resources management agency. Ultimately, though, all roads lead back to one of two factors: the political elites who hold agency purse strings, and a hoary culture of wildlife management organized around the precepts of domination and use, shared with wildlife managers in bureaus lusting for power over grizzly bear management in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.
Considering purse strings, there is a long history of conservative politicians from conservative states manipulating the budgets of agencies such as the Fish & Wildlife Service to achieve conservative ends, leading, ultimately, to an internalized aversion among Service bureaucrats to antagonizing conservative elites—a sort of aversive conditioning. As a consequence, the insidious narrative of climate warming denial has subtly insinuated itself into decision-making by agency employees.
The ethos of domination and use amplifies all of this by naturally aligning with a conservative worldview and with the interests of those who, in the end, value wildlife such as grizzly bears primarily for opportunities to kill them. The impulse to kill is reflected in the primacy of sport hunting among wildlife managers pretty much everywhere. In somewhat complex ways, all of this translates into a natural sympathy, even within the Service, for state-based wildlife management. But more important, the domination-use worldview creates a powerful impulse on the part of state managers and their political allies to wrest all power over wildlife management away from the federal government, in this instance, ESA-based authority by the Fish & Wildlife Service over grizzlies.
In other words, as with the impetus for climate-warming-denial, the impulse is to maintain a power and wealth status quo in defiance of an emerging threat organized around fundamentally different values and constituencies.
How do I know this? I’ve lived it for over 60 years.
An Inescapable Imperative
The fundamental mechanisms of climate warming are not rocket science. The basic chemistry and physics of green-house gases and possible effects on climate had been worked out by the mid-1800s. The evidence of climate warming is, moreover, amply evident for anyone who has eyes to see. I’ve witnessed inescapable manifestations even during my lifetime. For one, nighttime temperatures are not as consistently cool. As a kid in the Black Hills, nighttime frost was pretty much guaranteed any time high temperatures weren’t able to get out of the 60s. Not anymore.
Likewise, the implications of rising CO2 levels were known to even the least prescient of the scientific community as early as the 1970s and 80s—even implications for wildlife such as grizzly bears. I authored papers published in 1986 and 1991 —roughly 30 years ago—in which I flagged the problem of climate warming for Yellowstone grizzly bears. Yet, emblematic of the current spate of climate-warming denial in the Fish & Wildlife Service, the Service’s Recovery Coordinator at that time likened my concerns to those of “chicken little.” Not by coincidence, he continued on to author the 2007 and 2016 Fish & Wildlife Service rules dismissing the threat of climate warming and lifting ESA protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Current manifestations of denial do, indeed, have deep roots, as do the cultural and political dynamics spawning it.
But all of this is rendered trivial in comparison to our unfolding reality and what it promises for life on Earth. I recently read an engaging book by Peter Brannen entitled “The Ends of the World.” Much of the book is devoted to describing and explaining the causes and consequences of Earth’s past epic mass extinctions. It is a sobering read, and a guide to what humanity’s obsessive consumption of profit-generating fossil fuels promises to spawn. As it turns out, rapid increases in concentrations of CO2 and methane triggered most of the near sterilizations of Earth that occurred during the last 500-million years. Alarmingly, our current discharge of CO2 into the atmosphere is more breakneck than during any previous mass extinction. The implications are stark, and not just for grizzly bears.
We need to act now. And our first order of business will necessarily be overthrowing the elites and their conservative regime that currently strangles all aspects of our national life.