January 18, 2012
A theory about the role of carbon dioxide in climate patterns has joined abortion and gay marriage as a culture war controversy. Climate scientists are attacked as greenshirts and watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside). Skeptics are derided as flat-earthers. Reputations are assaulted and the e-mails of scientists hacked.
A few years ago, the intensity of this argument would have been difficult to predict. In 2005, then-Gov. Mitt Romney joined a regional agreement to limit carbon emissions. In 2007, Gingrich publicly endorsed a cap-and-trade system for carbon.
What explains the recent, bench-clearing climate brawl? A scientific debate has been sucked into a broader national argument about the role of government. Many political liberals have seized on climate disruption as an excuse for policies they supported long before climate science became compelling — greater federal regulation and mandated lifestyle changes. Conservatives have also tended to equate climate science with liberal policies and therefore reject both.
The result is a contest of questioned motives. In the conservative view, the real liberal goal is to undermine free markets and national sovereignty (through international environmental agreements). In the liberal view, the real conservative goal is to conduct a war on science and defend fossil fuel interests. On the margin of each movement, the critique is accurate, supplying partisans with plenty of ammunition.