James Inhofe, the senior Republican senator from Oklahoma and author of “The Great Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future,” has recently become chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. As a result, we can expect his committee, and perhaps the Senate as a whole, to proceed on the basis that human-induced climate change is nothing but a twisted fantasy concocted by misguided intellectuals.
As conspiracy theories go, this one is a dilly. The overwhelming majority of American earth and weather scientists, working in hundreds of private universities and in public universities funded and supervised by all 50 states (red as well as blue), have apparently decided to risk their personal credibility and endanger their careers to tell a complex, well-coordinated lie for no apparent reason. Thousands of other scientists in countries ranging from Australia to Ireland to China, in a remarkable display of cooperation with the U.S., have subjected themselves to similar risks, with a similar lack of possible rewards.
It is hardly surprising that energy companies — whose outsize profits may be reduced once the ongoing damage to the environment is recognized– have for years subscribed to this conspiracy theory, and in some cases funded its proponents. But why do so many Americans believe them? Why do they ignore an overwhelming scientific consensus of the sort that few people question in matters of medical care, electronics design, or factory management? The reason is that the response to climate change affects people’s personal beliefs and lifestyles. It is not simply a political position, like controlling air pollution or saving the blue whale, but an issue that reaches deep inside our patterns of thought and behavior.