The planet keeps getting warmer--2016 is on pace to be the hottest year on record--but the denial surrounding climate change remains entrenched. As Naomi Klein reported in This Changes Everything, 71 percent of Americans in 2007 believed that continuing to burn fossil fuels would affect the Earth's climate. By 2009--the peak for the Tea Party movement--the number had declined to 51 percent. In 2011, it was only 44%. A Harris poll in 2014--after Superstorm Sandy and so many other "natural" disasters--indicated that still only 45 percent of Americans agreed with the statement regarding climate change that "I believe it exists and humans are the main cause."
It's not hard to understand how this growth of mass denialism happened. The shift in public opinion about climate change should give pause to anyone who doubts the effectiveness of elite-sponsored propaganda. Between 2002 and 2010, anonymous billionaires contributed $120 million to over 100 groups and think tanks who were working to discredit the scientific findings about climate change. Nearly three-quarters of the climate denial books that began appearing en masse during the 1990s were connected to right-wing think tanks. Every single one of the 17 candidates for the 2016 GOP nomination either denied that climate change was being caused by human activity, or denied that it was happening at all. It's been quite a partisan shift from 2008, when Newt Gingrich appeared with Nancy Pelosi in a TV ad on Al Gore's Climate Reality Project to call for action on climate change. By 2011, Gingrich was calling his appearance with Pelosi "the single dumbest thing I've done in years."
It's also not hard to understand why billionaires and the right-wing politicians who serve them are so invested in denying the science of climate change. Many, like the Koch brothers, are directly involved in the fossil fuel industry. But for those who are ideologically invested in the neoliberal ideas of free trade, privatization, and deregulation, the specter of climate change signals the end of the party. People with individualistic, competitive, and hierarchical worldviews are significantly more likely to deny that climate change is happening. Likewise, it threatens religious conservatives and fundamentalists who believe humans should exercise dominion over the planet and that nature is a gift from God for our consumption. Millions of Americans fervently deny climate change in the same way that they passionately espouse their views about taxes, guns, and abortion.
It's easy to mock these lunatic conspiracy theories of the denialists. Many of them believe that climate change is something like a Trojan horse for some kind of "Green communitarianism" involving the abolition of capitalism. And yet Naomi Klein suggests that they may actually understand the situation more clearly than the liberals and moderates who are searching for market-friendly, technological solutions to climate change. The reality, Klein suggests, is that capitalism and the climate are indeed incompatible, and conservatives understand this better than liberals who are still trying to work within the logic of the market, through carbon trading, offsets, and the like. She writes:
So here's my inconvenient truth: I think these hard-core ideologues understand the significance of climate change better than most of the "warmists" in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don't need to go to war with anybody, including the fossil fuel companies (p. 43).
Karl Marx once wrote that "the bourgeoisie creates its own gravediggers": the internal contradictions of capitalism would lead to its revolutionary overthrow. Marx, of course, assumed that this revolutionary force would be the working class. What Marx could not foresee was how the environment could be a second source of contradiction and limitation for capital. Capitalists have pushed the Earth to the brink of catastrophe, and our only hope for survival may be the end of capitalism and the growth of a more egalitarian, sustainable economy, one that puts people and the planet ahead of profits.