“The trick is to keep your identity separate from your opinions,” begins one of the most insightful quotes I have heard in some time. YouTube educator and general internet sage CGP Grey continues on to explain how opinions are merely objects in a box that people carry with them and they should be easily replaceable. “If you think that the opinions in the box are who you are then you’ll cling to them despite any evidence to the contrary. Bottom line if you want to always be right, you need to always be prepared to change your mind.”
Elsewhere, on the floor of the US Senate, Senator James Inhofe hucked a snowball at the presiding senior Republican that day. “Here, Mr. President, catch this.”
It had snowed recently in DC and, as is all too typical for the senator from Oklahoma that has both literally written the book on climate change denial and is primarily funded by oil and gas interests ($454,500 in 2014), Inhofe knew that snow meant only one thing. If it’s snowing, how can global warming exist? In an equally predictable response, primarily liberal media outlets picked up the story as an excuse for some easy click bait and an opportunity to (once again) publicly scoff at an enemy of scientific literacy. Within hours the internet was flooded with digital ink pointing out that, yes it may be snowing in DC but, no, that doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t happening. It was an opportunity for them to take a good long laugh at “Senator Snowball1.”
But there is a fundamental flaw in this predicable point-counterpoint argument that these parties always seem to have: they are talking past each other. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that Inhofe’s rhetoric is genuine and not completely driven by financial interests and the GOP party line. Even if it is, there are a great many people not in politics but still with deeply conservative Christian convictions with whom Inhofe’s views resonate strongly. The problem with this kind of public debate is that it entirely ignores the source of this kind of thinking. The media and other legislators miss this nearly subconscious cognitive focal point: there exists a natural order and any violation of that natural order is wrong at best and immoral at worst. With this world view then, conservative positions on many issues begin to come into focus. Gay marriage violates the established order of romantic and sexual relationships. Abortion violates the natural order of human reproduction, as does birth control. The idea of evolution violates the natural order of humanity’s relationship with nature.
But these issues go further than just violating perceived and absolute rules for how the universe is ordered. They actively attack the constructed view of reality that deeply conservative people hold. In short, every time climate change is mentioned, discussed, or given any credibility, Inhofe has an existential crisis. It should not be a surprise that his defense of this stance goes back to the Bible. In his mind, if human induced climate change is real, then God’s total dominion over the earth is suspect. If that dominion is suspect, then God himself may be suspect and Inhofe’s entire order to the universe falls apart. Somewhere in the conscious or unconscious mind of Jim Inhofe, giving climate change any credibility is a direct assault on his entire world view.
In this light, then, the reaction of Inhofe and other conservative Christians starts to come into focus. For them, opinions are not carried in a box; they are a deep part of who they are. Because of this, any question or issue that they feel violates these natural orders is considered to be an attack on the very core of their reality. It should be no surprise, then, that these issues are often met with very strong and exceedingly loud opposition. This is where media, primarily those with a liberal spin, start to talk right past Inhofe and others like him. The media is trying to argue the merit of a scientific idea. Inhofe is trying to argue the merit of his personal reality. This is the same story with those that stage graphic anti-abortion demonstrations or school board members who try to strip evolution and climate change out of school text books.
So instead of laughing at the stupidity of a man for hucking a snowball on the floor of the senate, we should look at why Inhofe felt compelled to take up such a desperate defensive stance. What, specifically, about the political landscape surrounding climate change do Inhofe and others find so threatening? Is there a way in which we can resolve these two issues? While it is tempting to say that you can never debate with ardently religious points, I would argue that progress can be made. Look at the Pope’s recent comments about how the big bang and evolution need not be shunned by Christians. He makes it clear that we should not see science as the antithesis of religion. If the highest man in the Catholic Church can reconcile scientific work with his world view, we can find a way to reconcile climate change with Jim Inhofe2. After all says the Pope, “God is not a magician.”
1Full disclosure: I find the “Senator Snowball” joke hilarious.
2Again, assuming this doesn’t all just boil down to financial contributions.