Politics & Policy

Liberal Denial on Climate Change and Energy

A new poll reveals conservatives are the open-minded ones.

The late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick once observed, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” It’s a statement that many liberals need to take to heart on energy and climate issues.

According to the Hoover Institution’s recently completed Golden State Poll, conducted in partnership with the nationally respected polling firm YouGov, many Democrats and liberals are in denial when it comes to reality on energy and climate policy, endorsing both science and political fiction.

This is, of course, the opposite of the narrative we hear in much of the media, with its constant paeans to “settled science” and its derision of anyone who opposes liberal climate-policy proposals as a “denier.” (This is certainly not true in the case of this author, who thinks that climate change is both real and worth addressing while strenuously opposing the scaremongering tactics that are unfortunately common among liberals.)

While politics affects both parties’ prescriptions for energy and the environment, a look at the data suggests that Democrats and liberals are far more likely to have their ideological blinders on. In our poll of 1,000 Californians, Democrats and liberals were more likely to give incorrect, highly unlikely, or intensely ideological responses to a set of basic questions about energy and environmental policy than were independents, conservatives, and Republicans.

Such a result should not be entirely surprising. The Democratic party’s electoral majority is currently sustained by low-information voters and people who are unlikely to be persuaded by data that contradicts their own political narrative. In the Golden State Poll, which had both internal and external question reviewers to minimize bias, several interesting results emerged that reinforced the idea of a liberal information gap.

Respondents were concerned about climate change — and that concern crossed party and ideological lines. But not a single liberal in our survey dismissed climate change as a “not at all serious” problem,” and a scant 4 percent were open to the idea that global climate change might be a “not very serious” problem.

When half of our sample was asked about climate change’s effects only in California, just 5 percent of liberals felt that it was not very serious and 3 percent felt it was not at all serious. Both are essentially zero within the poll’s margin of error. Given the enormous uncertainties that exist around both climate science and climate policy, this is more correctly characterized as a religious view of climate change than an empirical one.

Conservatives were far more open-minded about climate change, with 39 percent considering it a somewhat or very serious problem and only 31 percent saying it was not at all serious. This view was far closer to the view of political independents, who presumably have no partisan axe to grind in the climate wars. Fifty-one percent of them thought climate change was a very or somewhat serious problem, while 41 percent felt that it was not very or not at all serious. One can draw two plausible conclusions from this: Either liberals alone have the intellectual acuity to definitively determine the magnitude of the problem presented by climate change, or, alternatively, unlike conservatives and independents, liberals are engaged in climate groupthink from which no dissent is brooked.

Perhaps this apocalyptic tendency is a result of the liberal knowledge gap. This became apparent when we asked our respondents about hydraulic fracturing. A just-released Environmental Defense Fund study, led by researchers at the University of Texas, showed that leakage of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) is likely to be an even smaller problem than the EPA’s modest estimates. Dispatching the other most common liberal complaint on fracking, current energy secretary Ernie Moniz recently said he has still “not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater,” a finding supported by three separate EPA investigations.

Yet 53 percent of California Democrats surveyed wanted to ban fracking in the state, and just 5 percent “definitely” wanted to avoid such a ban. Support for a ban comes despite the existence of little if any credible scientific evidence of fracking’s feared harms and overwhelming scientific evidence of its environmental benefits, including substantial reductions in both local and global pollutants. Republicans and independents both supported fracking, Republicans by a three-to-one margin.

Even the Obama administration’s current and former climate hawks are at odds with their party members’ irrationality on hydraulic fracturing. Deriding a choice between fracking and climate protection as a “false choice,” former secretary of energy Steven Chu said in a September speech, “This is something you can do in a safe way.” Not to be outdone, Secretary Moniz has referred to fracking as “safe” and “a bridge to a low-carbon future.”

Taken as a whole, the Golden State poll suggests that many liberals have a deeply ideological view of energy and climate and policy, one in which certain “truths” must be accepted to show one’s moral virtue while genuinely inconvenient truths are ignored. Conservatives, always appropriately skeptical of liberal utopianism, have reacted against that by redoubling their skepticism. While the media and liberal politicians attack them, conservatives know that it is hard to have a rational argument with a fanatic about the subject of his fanaticism.

On energy and climate, the Democrats’ political and policy ignorance needs to be exposed for what it is: self-contradictory, incoherent, and yes, unscientific.

It is time to start calling them out on it.

— Jeremy Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy.


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