Right wing tribalists: A lost cause

by John Q on April 30, 2014

Rightwing tribalism seems to be the topic du jour, or maybe I’m noticing it more having just done a long-planned post on the topic. Here are some recent examples

* Jamelle Bouie in Slate, headed “Conservative Tribalism” with the write-off

Mass transit. Common Core. Light bulbs. Conservatives hate these things for no better reason than that liberals like them.

* Tim Donovan in Salon, on The Right’s Paranoid Tribalism

and relatedly

* Digby in Slate on Southern white males as a voting bloc unremittingly hostile to the Dems on tribal grounds (my thoughts on this here)

Over the fold, I’ve reprised the piece (from a 2007 review of Clive Hamilton’s book Scorcher) when I first realized the central role of tribalism, as opposed to ideology or economic self-interest, in contemporary rightwing politics. Rereading it, I’m happy with most of the analysis, though obviously, with my characteristic over-optimism and shortening of time-frames, I did not anticipate the full tenacity of rightwing resistance on this issue.

What can be done about rightwing tribalism? There’s no point in traditional strategies of compromise and bargaining. The right don’t hate policies, they hate the people and groups they see as proposing those policies. So, as Bouie observes, the moment Obama adopts a policy favored by the right, they turn against it.

The strategy of trying to frame issues in rightwing terms, pushed by Lakoff and others, is similarly hopeless: it’s not the issues, but the people that are the problem. There’s one big exception to this: if they issue can be framed as Big Government vs the little guy, as in the cases of NSA surveillance and, more interestingly, of attempts by utilities to suppress rooftop solar power using ALEC-backed legislation, it’s possible to make common cause with at least some on the right, who hate “the guvment” even more than liberals and environmentalists. But that’s only true of a minority of the right, and a handful of issues.

Most of the time, none of these strategies will work. The only thing that will work is persuading rightwing tribalists to abandon their tribal identity, and persuading non-tribalists of conservative inclinations that they should not ally with this group. And of course, waiting for time and demography to take their course, as has already happened to a substantial extent.

In 1997, the Howard government came away from the Kyoto negotiations on climate change with a double triumph. First, despite opposition from many green groups and European governments, the resulting Kyoto Protocol relied primarily on the market-based policy of ‘cap-and-trade’ under which rights to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would be limited in total quantity, and tradeable between users and countries. This idea, pioneered in the United States, contrasted sharply with the policy of direct ‘command-and-control’ over individuals sources of emissions seen by many in the green movement as the only acceptable way of controlling pollution.

The case for emissions trading, pushed strongly by the Australian and US delegations rests on a simple economic argument. With a trading system, there is an incentive to find the lowest-cost way of reducing or offsetting emissions. The SO2 scheme in the US is estimated to have reduced compliance costs by 75 per cent. This is an impressive demonstration of the power of market mechanisms.

The second triumph came at the bargaining table, when targets for emissions reductions were being negotiated. By pursuing hardline bargaining tactics Australia secured the most generous emissions target of any developed country, allowing an increase of 8 per cent over 1990 levels when most other countries committed to reductions of 6 to 8 per cent. Even more strikingly, the agreement allowed Australia to meet its target entirely by restrictions on land clearing which were on the way in any case.

Ten years later, though, the government is floundering on the issue. Although the Kyoto Protocol came into force in 2005, Australia has yet to ratify it. And on the core issue of emissions trading the government has literally turned 360 degrees, rejecting the idea for years before scrambling to regain its original position under pressure from the Labor opposition, the states and much of the business sector.

The report of the Task Force on Emissions Trading provides the government with a last chance to deal itself back into the game. But the fact remains that, having started as one of the early advocates of emissions trading, the government now finds itself in the position of a last-minute, and rather dubious, convert.

How did all this come to pass? In large measure, it can be explained by the presence, within the Australian policy elite of an influential group of politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, think tanks and commentators determined to stop any significant action that would reduce CO2 emissions. In his new book, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change Clive Hamilton calls this group the ‘greenhouse mafia’ (a name he says they use themselves) and gives a critical description of its members and activities.

The first official reference to global warming turned up by Hamilton’s research is a 1981 memo from the Office of National Assessments (interestingly, addressed to a Mr J. Howard). Concern over the issue developed gradually during the 1980s, culminating in the 1992 Earth Summit, which led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a body established to assess the huge, and rapidly growing, body of research on the science of climate change, the likely impacts on societies, economies and ecosystems, and the possibilities for mitigation and adaptation. At this stage, the Hawke government had announced a commitment to the ‘Toronto targets’ calling for a 20 per cent reduction in emissions, but had taken no action to achieve this goal beyond the provision of research funding and some voluntary initiatives.

As the Howard government came into office, the pressure was mounting to match words with actions. The government’s main concern was with the Kyoto negotiations. As Hamilton shows, the government’s negotiating team, led by Meg McDonald of DFAT, treated Kyoto as a typical trade agreement, where the objective was to get as much, and give as little, as possible, an objective that was pursued with remarkable success.

It is after 1997 that the story becomes interesting. With the Kyoto agreement signed, a substantial section of the business community wanted to take advantage of Australia’s favourable position to participate in global emissions trading markets, take a lead in energy conservation and develop renewable sources of energy such as wind power. This group included much of the financial sector, the gas industry (energy from natural gas is less carbon-intensive than from coal) and even substantial elements of the energy sector, including BP, which had broken from the main international anti-Kyoto organisation, the Global Climate Coalition (after losing more members, the Coalition shut up shop around 2000).

A smaller, but more determined group, centred on the coal-mining and aluminium industries, emerged in opposition. Despite having congratulated the government on its success at Kyoto, this group rapidly emerged as vociferous opponents of the deal. Although they were motivated by concerns about the political and economic consequences of Kyoto, their chosen battleground was the science of climate change, which, they argued, was at best uncertain but more commonly the product of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive the public.

The most prominent public face of the greenhouse mafia has been the Lavoisier Group, which described Kyoto as ‘the greatest threat to our sovereignty since the Japanese Fleet entered the Coral Sea in 1942’ Hamilton notes, the Lavoisier Group was one of a string or similar organisations, the first being the HR Nicholls society, set up by then CEO of Western Mining Corporation, Hugh Morgan, and his executive officer Ray Evans.

The public activity of the Lavoisier Group was matched by effective behind-the-scenes organization by bureaucrats, lobby groups and individual politicians. Hamilton notes that many of the most effective lobbyists, such as Dick Wells of the Minerals Council, are former senior bureaucrats.

All of this activity was cheered on by a substantial section of the commentariat, and particularly The Australian newspaper. In much of the Australian media, there was a striking inconsistency between news coverage, which generally reported the findings of mainstream science, and the opinion pages which accepting the framing of the issue as a political dispute in which balance required equal time for both sides. The only real exception to this was The Australian, where both the news and opinion pages were dominated by views hostile to mainstream science.

Responding to this the Howard government adopted a set of positions that seemed to work well for some time, despite their inherent contradictions. The government officially accepted the science of climate change, but gave key portfolios to vocal skeptics. While refusing to ratify Kyoto, it promised to meet the Kyoto targets for emissions reduction. And having been among the leading proponents of market-based policies it set up the AP6 group, based on the claim that purely technological solutions were needed.

Hamilton’s final two chapters deal with the collapse of the government’s position over the last few years. In this period, the public debate was reshaped by the success of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Research, the release of the Stern Review of the economics of climate change, and in 2007, the progressive release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Over the same period, the occurrence of record temperatures, catastrophic bushfires and one of the worst droughts in history convinced ordinary Australians that the time for delay was past.

In retrospect this seems inevitable. By the time of the IPCC Third Assessment Report, released in 2001, the science was already fairly clear-cut. The fact that the earth was warming was well-established, and remaining concerns such as the discrepancy between surface and satellite measurements were approaching resolution (both data sets now show similar rates of warming). The evidence that human activity was responsible for the observed warming was not yet conclusive, but it was strong and getting steadily stronger as alternative hypotheses fell by the wayside. The Third Report concluded that the probability of human-caused global warming was between 66 and 90 per cent. The recently-released Fourth Report gave a probability of at least 90 per cent.

Of course, 90 per cent isn’t perfect certainty, but it is comparable to the scientific evidence we have to go on, for example, when we decide whether to allow the introduction of new drugs or genetically modified crops. In these circumstances, as many critics of extreme environmentalism have pointed out, insistence on absolute certainty is a recipe for paralysis.

Moreover, the remaining uncertainty surrounding global warming does not help a case for inaction. The core projections put forward by the IPCC exclude the small probability that warming will turn out to be the product of a natural cycle, but they also exclude various low-probability catastrophic scenarios, involving runaway feedbacks, collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and so on.

The most likely outcome of improvements in scientific knowledge is an increase in the confidence with which the mainstream IPCC model is held. But even if that does not happen, the news is just as likely to be bad as good.

So it seems that the critics of Kyoto, by focusing their attacks on the science of climate change, were backing an almost-certain loser in the long run. The obvious question is, Why?

For most of the book, Hamilton presents the methods, motives and successes of the greenhouse mafia as an example of effective delaying tactics, undertaken by well-organised interest groups particularly in the coal and aluminium industries. He sees the government’s stance as one of protecting short-term economic interests at the expense of our long-term national interest, not to mention those of the world as a whole.

This is certainly part of the story, But this analysis seems unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. Energy companies in Europe and elsewhere have had few problems in adapting to the new environment. Indeed, as Hamilton notes the intransigence of the Australian branches of Alcoa and Rio Tinto contrasts sharply with the positions of their corporate parents. And even Western Mining seems to have decided in the end that the campaigning fervour of Morgan and Evans was a distraction from their core business rather than a political asset.

But the most striking problem with the interest group explanation is its failure to account for the extraordinary ferocity of the climate change debate. As Hamilton notes at a couple of points in the argument, the rancour of the greenhouse mafia reflects a deep-seated hostility to environmentalism that goes beyond any calculation of corporate interests, or even the interests of the market system.

In fact, the dispute is not so much ideological as tribal. For the mining executives who lead the group, the retired engineers who typify the rank-and-file, and the culture warriors who push its case in the Murdoch press, greens or “enviros” are natural enemies. If they wear suits, turn up at business meetings and use the rhetoric of the market, that only makes them more subtle and dangerous threats.

And those who speak with the authority of science are disliked and distrusted even more. The most prominent recent statement from the greenhouse mafia, Ray Evans’ Nine Lies About Global Warming asserts that ‘If the IPCC were a commercial corporation operating in Australia, its directors would now be facing criminal charges and the prospect of going to jail’. Even normally sober commentators like Alan Wood, economics editor of The Australian, make free use of use of terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘fraud’ to discuss the main body of climate science supporting global warming theory.

Green activists and scientists alike are presented, in the rhetoric of the greenhouse mafia, as irreconcilable enemies of markets and freedom. Yet, Kyoto did not mark a triumph of anti-capitalist greens. Rather it signified the acceptance by the mainstream environmental movement that capitalism is here to stay, and that catastrophic climate change can only be prevented through the use of market mechanisms. Faced with a choice between pursuing fundamental social change and saving the planet, environmentalists have opted for the latter.

Serious advocates of capitalism have long recognised this. At meetings like the annual Davos conference and its Australian offshoot, the need to act on global warming is taken as given. The central issue is not the political fight over Kyoto and alternative proposals, but the opportunities for individual businesses and the business sector as a whole to take a leading role in the process.

Overall, the story told by Scorcher is one of a series of tactical victories for the greenhouse mafia leading to what appears certain to be a massive strategic defeat. The end of the Bush Administration will almost certainly signal the abandonment of the policies of denial and delay for which the ‘skeptics’ have fought so hard. The adoption of some form of emissions trading is inevitable, and the resulting political dynamic will ensure the adoption of long-term targets requiring large reductions in emissions. The only outcome of a decade of delaying tactics will be to increase the costs of the inevitable adjustment.

With its early advocacy of market-based policy, the Howard government, and the political right in Australia, could now be challenging the lock on environmental issues held by the left. Instead, having painted themselves into a corner by denying the plain evidence of science, they now find themselves scrambling to regain credibility and relevance.

Clive Hamilton, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne 2007, 266+vi pp.



peggy 04.30.14 at 9:05 pm

“Overall, the story told by Scorcher is one of a series of tactical victories for the greenhouse mafia leading to what appears certain to be a massive strategic defeat.”
“The adoption of some form of emissions trading is inevitable…”

Your 2007 prediction is a bit rosy. When is inevitable? (at least in the US)


John Quiggin 04.30.14 at 9:28 pm

As I note in the OP, I’m characteristically over-optimistic and underestimated the tenacity of resistance by the Repubs. When there was a chance to push this through Congress, Obama was still trying to compromise with them, and let the ball drop. However, he’s now done a lot on the regulatory front, effectively prohibiting new coal-fired power plants, forcing the closure of lots of old ones, and pushing through much tighter fuel efficiency standards for cars.

Emissions trading would be a more cost-effective route, but we’re not going to see it without a Democratic president and Congress, willing to over-ride Senate filibusters. Reverting to (over) optimistic mode, I think that’s possible after 2016.


BrianM 04.30.14 at 9:28 pm

The Donovan link is borked – Fixed now, thanks. JQ


Omega Centauri 04.30.14 at 9:53 pm

In terms of strategy for the greenhouse mafia, delay is winning. They know the fossil fuel age will end, if for no other reason then there is a finite supply of the stuff. They fear the end may come for above ground (political envirnmental reasons), rather than for below ground (running out) reasons. The longer the demise can be put off, the more money they make.


Lee A. Arnold 04.30.14 at 10:00 pm

John Quiggin: “What can be done about rightwing tribalism?”

I call it a social cognitive bias, in other words an individual cognitive bias that refers to prior, emotional in-group identification. If your question is what to do about it practically, Dan Kahan calls it cultural cognition, and has made some observations in that direction. Notes I made from one of his YouTube presentation talks:

You cannot break the cultural cognition, so instead, disrupt the confirmation bias.

1) Pluralistic communication: find an expert they trust who says something in opposition to them: cross the experts they trust, from one side to the other.

2) Pluralistic argument condition: if they don’t know whether the expert is close to or far away from their values, there is a middling level of polarization.

Us vs. Them — There are several mechanisms here, but the most important one is a kind of Identity Threat: presentation of evidence that their values are wrong. The threat of a loss of status, driving a wedge between them and their peers.

Show them that the information is consistent with their values: identity affirmation.

How does making people aware that more technology may be the solution, affect people’s emotional posture of whether climate change is real, AND we need to do something? That is empowering. “Solutions” are resources for discussion.


Cheryl Rofer 04.30.14 at 10:01 pm

What can be done about rightwing tribalism? A good question, since it is stopping the process of governance in the United States. I would like to see strategies beyond waiting for the old haters to die, but there will be another generation growing into the Fox News all-day hate.

It seems to me that that hate is worth looking at – where it comes from, how it functions psychologically for the hater, how it is communicated, how it is used by the powerful.

And it’s not just the English-speaking world. Russia is using it in Ukraine as well. Part of their attempt to lead the conservative world, no doubt.


W. Kiernan 04.30.14 at 10:37 pm

The right don’t hate policies, they hate the people and groups they see as proposing those policies. As someone who has lived in the old Confederacy for five decades, I don’t think this is always true. For a century, Southern white men didn’t hate Republicans as people, they hated them for their policies, or rather for one policy, their opposition to white supremacy. Then the instant that the Democrats and Republicans swapped positions on civil rights for blacks, Southern white men started admiring these Republican politicians and voting for them.

Clearly, the only way Democrats will ever win a majority of the Southern white male vote is if they start being segregationist Dixiecrats again; that’s a matter of policy, not personality.


cassander 04.30.14 at 10:39 pm

>But the most striking problem with the interest group explanation is its failure to account for the extraordinary ferocity of the climate change debate.

That you can say such a thing about a debate that involves literally trillions of dollars, and the viability of multiple industries really speaks to the height of your ivory tower. Why on earth would you expect, for example, those who would build the keystone pipeline, to simply roll over and accept the end of their industries because some “pointy headed academic” warns of consequences a century from now? And why would you expect them not to unload those frustrations should the subject come up in discussions with their friends and neighbors, especially when those friends and neighbors are already likely ideologically sympathetic?


Omega Centauri 04.30.14 at 10:41 pm

A big part of the problem in my opinion, is that there seems to be a viable business model in promoting hate. It used to be promoted almost entirely for political effect by purely poltical actors, but Murdoch discovered how to exploit it for the entertainment business. And he’s making enough money to buy up lots more media. So there are multiple issues, such as:
(1) Why don’t we regulatate against eggregious mis(dis)information in media?
(2) Why are so many people addicted to the product?
(3) How do we deal with the population of addicts?


shah8 04.30.14 at 10:57 pm

I do think that there will be a strategic defeat. I don’t think that the *cost* of defeat will be imposed on the greenhouse mafia, but on the public at large, in terms of repression against greenhouse mafia tactics.


shah8 04.30.14 at 11:09 pm

I also think that the Supreme Court ruling in the ACA will be largely analogous. There will be preliminary defeat because the internal opposition knows well enough the stopping the train will only mean that an even stronger train comes, and soon. However, the concession will be ladled with as many poison pills as possible, like the Medicaid situation, while their propaganda organs rant against the failures of the solution. So in places like Australia, Canada, I expect that the crafting of the next protocol will have pernicious bureaucratic burdens for all economic activity, sort of like the US not allowing the filing of taxes to be a simple as it could be so Turbotax et al, can profit. Only that in this case, agitprop can fulminate against the “anti-bidness” essence of giving a shit about global warming.

The craziest thing about global warming opposition is all of the nutbar weathermen who hails from a good weather school in Oklahoma. Ryan Maue, Joe Bastardi, the rest… They aren’t climatologists, and act offended that some non-weatherfolks could tell them what’s what, or something like that.

Sometimes I think much of the angst is from entitled people who resents the lower class who has expertise for telling them what to do or think.


David 04.30.14 at 11:14 pm

Right wing tribalism is mostly a result of Nietzschean ressentiment , and is thus unthinkably powerful.


Anderson 04.30.14 at 11:18 pm

I’m so out of it, I didn’t even know we knew Digby’s name.


Jason Weidner 04.30.14 at 11:48 pm

The French theorist Yves Citton has developed an interesting and I think helpful way to think about this issue. The issue he addresses is the causes of and potential ways of responding to right-wing populism. Citton addresses this from a Spinozist political affect approach. On the surface, Citton may sound a bit like Lakoff, who you dismiss in the beginning of the post. I think a key difference, though, is that for Citton it’s not just about framing a progressive message in a way that average right-wing folks could buy, it’s also based on understanding the affective source of the hostility to emancipatory ideas, affects which are ultimately captured and given direction by the political right-wing forces (what William Connolly, referring to the US case, calls the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine).

Here’s a short paper by Citton on <a href="http://www.google.com.mx/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CCUQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.skor.nl%2F_files%2FFiles%2FOPEN20_P60-69.pdf&ei=4odhU73gAsfg8AGmgoHYBg&usg=AFQjCNGA-d1hdVGoDhRTTeNDYUhB55LiEw&bvm=bv.65636070,d.b2U"affect and populism and here’s <a href="http://www.google.com.mx/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CC0QtwIwAQ&url=http%3A%2F%2

67874727&ei=4odhU73gAsfg8AGmgoHYBg&usg=AFQjCNF2u9Qm1OORKTAF9PE4MUTSoptFKA&bvm=bv.65636070,d.b2Ua video of Citton discussing the same thing.


Thornton Hall 04.30.14 at 11:50 pm

I think part of the problem is exemplified by this sentence:
“In fact, the dispute is not so much ideological as tribal. ” But there isn’t a single reference to any “ideological” consideration, anywhere. In describing the current situation you don’t make the same mistake.

But among the press and pundits, this mistake is still rampant. The word “ideology” refers to a system of ideas that is not subject to empirical falsification because it is how we view the world. Values are ideology. Nationalism is an ideology. But our discourse calls things like supply side economics and climate science “ideological”, defining them as outside empirical debate. We lost before the fight even began.


Jason Weidner 04.30.14 at 11:50 pm

Crap, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to figure out how to insert the links properly.


Jason Weidner 04.30.14 at 11:55 pm

I should add that the affective ground for many who support right-wing takes on issues like global warming is not too dissimilar from many on the left: a feeling that the system is corrupt, that the big guys are rigging the game for their own benefit and screwing the little guy, etc. It’s just that the right political machine has done a good job of making climate scientists (and scientists more generally), intellectuals, the media, government (especially international government) represent those powerful forces that are screwing them.


Matt 05.01.14 at 12:41 am

Energy companies in Europe and elsewhere have had few problems in adapting to the new environment.

This now reads as seriously out of date. Companies involved in electricity production in Germany have taken a big hit from German expansion of wind and solar power. Many companies in surrounding nations that operate conventional generation assets are complaining about the effects also, since Germany reduces surrounding nations’ wholesale electricity prices at times of high renewable production/exports. The electricity price forecasts put out by Thomson Reuters for European markets are dominated by weather in a way they weren’t 10 years ago: is more sunshine expected in two days? Less wind? Unusually high or low temperatures always affected demand and prices before, but now you barely make money running a fossil generator even in a cold snap if it’s windy at the same time.

To be clear it seems to me like a win/win for people in surrounding nations if Germany is simultaneously reducing regional electricity prices and diminishing the duty cycle of fossil fuel plants. Obviously the interests of owners of mines and generating stations are not identical with the interests of the median citizen.

It’s said that from a grid perspective, distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar) is equivalent to demand reduction. Did your draw from the grid drop because you added solar or because you purchased more efficient appliances? It’s the same either way. In regions that bundle fixed infrastructure costs into per-unit consumption prices, conservation and self-generation are both bad for the finances of infrastructure owners. This is where financial incentives come from to fight energy efficiency standards, conservation campaigns, and even the proud individualism of growing your own electricity. It’s incumbent generators, distributors, and miners trying to stymie trillion-dollar disruptions to their interests, not just a tribal allergic reaction.

Why are the UK Tories currently praising distributed solar generation and offshore wind, booing onshore wind? It’s reasonable to believe that it started out with aesthetics: onshore wind is a lot more visible and some people think it’s really ugly. I believe that financial interests of conventional generators also are against onshore wind because it’s too cheap, too able to render them unprofitable when it’s windy. You can profitably sell a megawatt hour of electricity from onshore wind today for less than Hinkley Point C will charge — but not rooftop solar. Not offshore wind. The real acid test will be to see if Tories continue to support distributed solar even as it scales large enough to put a German-style price squeeze on conventional generating assets.


Thornton Hall 05.01.14 at 1:18 am

@Jason Wiedner #14. I read the short Cittron paper. Very interesting. His discussion of the need for bottom up myth making points, in my mind, to the problems created by having a professional, objective, elite news media. There’s an asymmetry because the Blue tribe agrees that the objective New York Times describes the world correctly, and therefore relinquishes any ability to generate populist myths, while the Red tribe maintains an active, bottom up, myth making media. In fact, even before reading the Cittron piece, I have thought that one of the problems with the Internet is that it allows one creative racist to come up with arguments for racist policies that don’t sound racist and then to share these arguments with other racists who would never be so creative to come up with them on their own. Thus the Internet allows for every idiot racist to have access to sophisticated rhetorical tricks. This same process could be read as Cittron populist myth making.


Lee A. Arnold 05.01.14 at 2:19 am

There is actually a lot of great stuff on this tribalism, both on the nature of the socio-emotional-intellectual beast, and on what we might try to do about it. I got into it via bibliographies at the end of studies and reports from the new field of “climate change communication”, and up to about a year ago, I collected around 100 papers on it. I had no idea how well this general condition has been teased out of the data by researchers. It is totally fascinating. Two of the many interesting things are that this tribalism may have roots in 18th century, and that it occurs on both left and right, but it predominates now on the right, due to certain circumstances. The search phrases are “motivated social cognition”, “cultural cognition”, “system-justification”, etc. Here are some of the best I found, just a tip of the iceberg. I won’t give the links because it will get stuck in moderation:

Farrell, Henry, “Epistemic closure — climate change edition.” The Monkey Cage, March 9, 2011.

Feygina, Irina, et al. “System justification, the denial of global warming, and the possibility of ‘system-sanctioned change’.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36:3 (2010) pp. 326-338.

Hennes, Eric P., et al., “Not all ideologies are created equal: Epistemic, existential, and relational needs predict system-justifying attitudes.” Social Cognition 30:6 (2012) pp. 669-688.

Hetherington, Marc J., “Resurgent mass partisanship: the role of elite polarization.” American Political Science Review 95:3 (2001) pp. 619-631.

Jost, John J., and Orsolya Hunyady, “The psychology of system justification and the palliative function of ideology.” European Review of Social Psychology 13 (2002) pp. 111-153.

Jost, John J., et al., “Ideology: its resurgence in social, personality, and political psychology.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 3:2 (2008) pp. 126-136.

Jost, John J., et al., “Political conservatism as motivated social cognition.” Psychological Bulletin 129:3 (2003) pp. 339-375.

Jost, John J., and David M. Amodio, “Political ideology as motivated social cognition: Behavioral and neuroscientific evidence.” Motivation and Emotion 36 (2012) pp. 55-64.

Kahan, Dan M., “Ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reflection.” Judgment and Decision Making 8 (2013) p-p. 407-424.motivated social cognition,

Kahan, Dan H., et al., “Cultural cognition of scientific consensus.” Journal of Risk Research 14 (2011) pp. 147-174.

Knight, Kathleen, “Transformations in the concept of ideology in the twentieth century.” American Political Science Review 100:4 (2006) pp. 619-626.

Lahsen, Myanna, “Experiences of modernity in the greenhouse: A cultural analysis of a physicist “trio” supporting the backlash against global warming.” Global Environmental Change 18 (2008) pp. 204-219.

McCright, Aaron M., and Riley E. Dunlap, “The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001-2010.” The Sociological Quarterly 52 (2011) pp. 155-194.

Oreskes, Naomi, et al., “From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, global warming, and the social deconstruction of scientific knowledge.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38:1 (2008) pp. 109-152.


Michael Harris 05.01.14 at 2:58 am

W Kiernan @7:
The right don’t hate policies, they hate the people and groups they see as proposing those policies. As someone who has lived in the old Confederacy for five decades, I don’t think this is always true. For a century, Southern white men didn’t hate Republicans as people, they hated them for their policies, or rather for one policy, their opposition to white supremacy. Then the instant that the Democrats and Republicans swapped positions on civil rights for blacks, Southern white men started admiring these Republican politicians and voting for them.

Clearly, the only way Democrats will ever win a majority of the Southern white male vote is if they start being segregationist Dixiecrats again; that’s a matter of policy, not personality.

It seems to me what you’re saying is consistent with John’s point — for the Democrats to win the South, they’d have to start visibly endorsing/supporting/acting on behalf of the “right people” i.e. Southern white men. (And, accordingly, abandoning all the wrong people they’ve been endorsing/supporting/acting on behalf of in the meantime.)


Michael Harris 05.01.14 at 2:59 am

Middle para is still meant to be “quote”-italicised.


NM 05.01.14 at 4:19 am

JQ, in defence of your optimism from ~2007, it seems as if the “Climate Gate” event was a key turning point that had a substantial impact on public opinion, and thus on the political dynamics. I’m not terribly familiar with the lit., but what I’ve seen by way of polling seems to show public belief in/concern over climate change going way down after “climate gate”, at least in Greater Anglo-Saxonia. It also appeared to tremendously embolden the skeptics/tribals, serving as a smoking-gun evidence that a huge conspiracy was being hatched. (Of course, climate gate was nothing of the kind, but it seems to be used discursively in this way.)


bad Jim 05.01.14 at 5:00 am

Chris Mooney, who perhaps few take seriously, has been wrestling with this question for years. Not long ago, his prescription was somewhat like Lee Arnold’s, but the evidence forced him to abandon it. Lately he seems more inclined to ascribe it to brain wiring.

The U.S. has pronounced regional variations. A map of diabetes incidence nearly coincides with Baptist church attendance, obesity, gun ownership, creationism, global warming denial, and a host of comparable disorders. It’s certainly a stretch to suggest that it might be the result of shared genes, but we may be fooling ourselves if we entertain the fantasy that memetic therapy will matter on the time scale of a generations.

We’re going to have to wait until the people my age are dead.


protoplasm 05.01.14 at 6:46 am

To Lee A. Arnold (#20), or anyone else who’s well-read on the subject:
What, if anything, have you found in your research about changes in tribe membership? The qualitative and quantitative nature of tribal change, how it occurs, and whether it can be effected or aided by outsiders? Perhaps the many literatures on religious conversion would be relevant here.

Broadly on-topic is filmmaker Jen Senko’s upcoming documentary, ‘The Brainwashing of my Dad’, about which she was interviewed at Alternet last October: http://www.alternet.org/media/how-talk-radio-and-fox-news-brainwashed-my-dad?paging=off

The trailer for her film is on youtube: http://youtu.be/Qh3TeTxgNVo

I’m also reminded of once-commenter John Emerson’s remarks, here at CT and elsewhere, on the significance of what (I think) he called the ‘ambient political opinion’ of the country. If formerly apolitical people can, after exposure to certain media and ideologies, become politically charged (like ions), then I don’t see why we would necessarily have to wait for them to die off, as bad Jim (#24) suggests. Maybe that’s what the evidence points to, but unless it does we might do well to attempt to “reverse the polarity” where we can.


novakant 05.01.14 at 10:09 am

Of course, 90 per cent isn’t perfect certainty, but it is comparable to the scientific evidence we have to go on, for example, when we decide whether to allow the introduction of new drugs or genetically modified crops. In these circumstances, as many critics of extreme environmentalism have pointed out, insistence on absolute certainty is a recipe for paralysis.

Being anti-GMO is suddenly “extreme environmentalism”?

You see, shifting the goalposts like that and calling people a bunch of nutters might make them less inclined to join your tribe.


reason 05.01.14 at 1:44 pm

“Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Research” – must have missed that one.


Thornton Hall 05.01.14 at 2:08 pm

@26 oh no. GMO is large. It contains multitudes. More importantly, it will feed multitudes. If you are against the work of scientists at places like UC Davis developing crops that can grow in Africa and crops that can grow with less fertilizer and less water, then “extreme” is just about the nicest thing you could be called.


Thornton Hall 05.01.14 at 2:16 pm

Clarifying and expanding my point at 19: the cause of the mess that is the GOP is the elite objective media. This progressive nonsense (media has been biased since Guttenberg and his obvious pro-God slant) was a sitting duck for people like Wm F Buckley to exploit.

Objective media, by definition, creates a world of two tribes. Otherwise, how do you know you’re “balanced”. It created an America with two narratives. It’s the single worst invention ever. Even nuclear power can be a force for good. Not so the idea of a professional elite objective media.

Annie Lowry’s piece in the NYT today is a good example of how to write excellent, fair, post-objective journalism.


Lee A. Arnold 05.01.14 at 4:42 pm

Protoplasm #25 “What, if anything, have you found in your research about changes in tribe membership?”

Not a lot about changes. It is still being defined. It looks to me like a cohesive, pervasive social organism, with certain emotional and intellectual features. There may not be a good word or phrase for it, because “political tribalism”, “motivated social cognition”, “social cognitive bias” are all a little too tame. It has some sort of independent ontology. I had very little idea this existed, and I was surprised the the amount of good, solid social science which has gone into this area. I copied and pasted a bunch of stuff from various papers to form my own personal word document overview, so apologies to authors if I don’t have all the citations, but I will try to keep this within fair use. Some outstanding markers:

1. MORE KNOWLEDGE DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK: “There is a dominant, but demonstrably flawed, assumption that ‘if people only knew’ enough information about e.g., climate change, they would act differently. But a great number of climate deniers are citizens of wealthy countries and many of them are scientifically literate.” –[They already know about things like political propaganda, vested interests, and public relations and advertising. Clearly, something else is going on.]– “This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties, and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.”

2. IT IS PARTLY ABOUT RISK PERCEPTION: [A major entry into studying the subject is risk perception]: “the tendency of people to conform perception of risk and advocacy of various ways to deal with it, to their preferred understandings of how society should be organized”: [Dan Kahan’s definition of “cultural cognition”.]

3. IT IS PARTLY ABOUT POLITICAL BELIEF: [Another entry is political belief. It maps somewhat over the “group/grid” axes of Douglas’ political quadrants: the “group” pole goes from individualist to communitarian; the “grid” pole goes from hierarchical to egalitarian. This is also related to risk perception.]

4. THERE IS AN ENORMOUS “IN-GROUP” COMPONENT: “Individuals, as a result of a complex of psychological mechanisms, tend to form perceptions of societal risks that cohere with values characteristic of groups with which they identify.” — “Communication research in the social sciences shows that technical knowledge is only loosely connected to collective decisions and to individual preferences. Many members of the public lack either the ability or the motivation to be well informed about the technical details of the science of climatology, choosing instead to rely on social identity, cultural traditions, personal experience, localized knowledge, and/or the popular media…” — “For the ordinary individual, the most consequential effect of his beliefs about climate change is likely to be on his relations with his peers…” — “Our data, consistent with that observed in other settings, suggest that those with the highest degree of science literacy and numeracy perform such tasks even more discerningly… For ordinary citizens, the reward for acquiring greater scientific knowledge and more reliable technical-reasoning capacities is a greater facility to discover and use—or explain away—evidence relating to their groups’ positions.”

5. IT IS PARTLY ABOUT JUSTIFYING THE STATUS QUO: [There is also a component that needs to justify the current system]: “Whereas most social psychological perspectives assume that needs to manage uncertainty, existential anxiety, and social cohesion should motivate any form of ideological zeal, System Justification Theory [Jost et al.] predicts that these needs are positively associated with the endorsement of system-justifying beliefs, opinions, and values but negatively associated with the endorsement of system-challenging ideological outcomes… …a national survey of 182 Americans…found that, as hypothesized, lower need for cognition, greater death anxiety, and a stronger desire to share reality each contributed significantly and independently to economic system justification, which, in turn, contributed to support for the Tea Party (a movement aimed at restoring America’s “traditional values”) and opposition to Occupy Wall Street (a movement seeking to reduce social and economic inequality and minimize corporate influence on government).”

6. THERE ARE CERTAIN COGNITIVE AND EMOTIONAL CORRELATES: “The emotion norms come into conflict with the troubling emotions created by the perceived threats… i.e. fear, helplessness, and guilt. In response to the felt clash of values and beliefs, individuals manage emotions through the use of selective attention (focus on something they feel comfortable to know or can do) and perspectival selectivity (de-emphasizing their own responsibility).” — “Research conducted over the last decade or so has provided support for the notion that epistemic, existential, and relational needs are all disproportionately associated with the endorsement of inherently conservative, system-justifying beliefs, opinions, and values. For instance, individual differences in the need for cognitive closure (i.e., the desire to “seize and freeze” on a given conclusion rather than tolerating or prolonging uncertainty) predict anchoring on the status quo, political conservatism, authoritarianism, stereotyping, and rejection of opinion deviates… Similarly, low need for cognition (i.e., possessing a low level of motivation to engage in cognitive activity); is correlated with political conservatism and harsh punishment of those who threaten the social order.” — “With respect to existential motives, the fear of death and perceptions of a dangerous world are associated with political conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism, stereotyping, and support for discrimination against same-sex couples…” — [Relational]: “…individuals who feel that it is especially important to ‘see the world as others who share their beliefs generally do’.” –[However]– “it is not our view that high system-justifiers always oppose social change… On the contrary, they frequently embrace forms of change that are either incremental—and therefore designed to forestall the demand for more radical changes to the status quo—or retrograde or restorative in nature, that is, designed to return the country to some prior idealized state of affairs…”

7. THERE IS A VERY ROBUST “WHITE MALE EFFECT” IN THE U.S.: [Not racist, something else] — “Past research on perceptions of technological and environmental risks in the US has documented what has been termed the white male effect, whereby white males are found to be more accepting of a wide range of risks than are other adults.” — “caused by a subgroup of white males who reported high levels of risk acceptance—30% of the white males in their national sample. This subgroup of risk-accepting white males had an affinity for hierarchy, had greater trust in authorities, and opposed democratization of risk management” — [Not a biological phenomenon]: “Rather, these scholars have put forth three sociopolitical explanations: the vulnerability thesis, the cultural worldview thesis, and the identity-protective cognition thesis.” — “More generally, conservative white males are likely to favor protection of the current industrial capitalist order which has historically served them well. Fiscally conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system, controlling stocks and flows of various forms of capital and benefiting from ample amounts of prestige, status, and esteem… Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it makes sense that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes—triggered by the anti-climate science claims of the conservative movement…—may drive them toward climate change denial.”

8. IT IS PARTLY ABOUT THE PUBLIC POSITION OF SCIENCE: “…public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church.” — “…the public defines ‘what science is’ in three distinct ways: (1) as an abstract method (e.g., replication, empirical, or unbiased); (2) as a cultural location (e.g., takes place in a university or is practiced by highly credentialed individuals); and (3) as one form of knowledge among other types such as commonsense and religious tradition… Interestingly, conservatives were far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition. Relating to the second pattern, when examining a series of public attitudes toward science, conservatives’ unfavorable attitudes are most acute in relation to government funding of science and the use of scientific knowledge to influence social policy… Conservatives thus appear especially averse to regulatory science, defined here as the mutual dependence of organized science and government policy.”

9. THERE IS A DIVORCE IN THE INSTRUMENTAL ATTITUDE TO SCIENCE: [Starting around the time of the cigarette cancer denial, the rise of environmentalism and Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative: technological optimism (we can fix anything) vs. “impact” or regulatory science (protect the environment).]

10. THE POLARIZATION IS MORE PRONOUNCED AMONG THE ELITES AND POLITICAL ACTORS, THAN IN THE GENERAL POPULATION: “There is virtually full agreement among scholars that political parties and politicians, in recent decades, have become more ideological and more likely to take extreme positions on a broad set of political issues… Though many observers have concluded that a similar polarization process has extended to public opinion at large, scholars have shown that, over the last 40 years, American public opinion has remained stable or even become more moderate on a large set of political issues, while people have assumed more extreme positions only on some specific, hot issues, such as abortion, sexual morality, and, lately, the war in Iraq… More systematic polarization appears in mass partisanship: those who are politically active or identify themselves with a party or ideology tend to have more extreme positions than the rest of the population.”


TM 05.01.14 at 5:29 pm

“What can be done about rightwing tribalism?”

One thing we could do is stop paying so much attention to them and concentrating our energy on furthering our own agenda. Just look at CT and count how many threads are wasted on debating silly right-wing talking points.


Heliopause 05.01.14 at 6:23 pm

“The only thing that will work is persuading rightwing tribalists to abandon their tribal identity”

A much simpler solution presents itself. Convince the scores of millions of eligible American voters who don’t vote to vote. They would almost certainly lean left/liberal/Democratic if they did and some of these initiatives would suddenly seem at least possible.

Approximately 130 million eligible voters did not vote in 2010 — ponder that number for a moment — and the rest is history.

America’s pathetic voter participation rate reflects a catastrophic failure of the American Democratic Party and American liberalism. American liberals prefer to pule about Ralph Nader or ridicule the other tribe than to gather the piles of manna lying on the ground all about them. The problem will never go away until they start engaging in a little honesty and reflection and give the scores and scores of millions of non-voters a compelling reason to vote for them.


Thornton Hall 05.01.14 at 6:24 pm

@Lee A Arnold #30: Seems to me there is total overlap of “issues covered by newsmedia” and “issues that elites are polarized about.” There is also a chronological correlation between the rise of local newspaper monopolies, objective journalism, and growing polarization of elites.


Lee A. Arnold 05.01.14 at 10:39 pm

Thornton Hall #33 — For sure. For one thing, the elite manage the news input: the media even uses material prepared by vested interests such as lobbyists, for broadcast. There is almost no other way to explain some of the misleading nonsense on the front page of the Washington Post, as pointed out almost daily by Dean Baker.

Most local television news programs even use pre-shot video promos, from manufacturers to promote new fads: the local newscaster reads the prepared narration over top, so it sounds like local news. It is actually a form of advertising, but it is given as human-interest news stories often at the end of the show. It’s a regular material feed.

For another thing, much of the media belong to the elite. That is their “in-group”.


J Thomas 05.02.14 at 12:01 pm

“The problem will never go away until they start engaging in a little honesty and reflection and give the scores and scores of millions of non-voters a compelling reason to vote for them.”

You mean, actually try to make significant changes?

Wouldn’t that be, like, dangerous?


someguy88 05.02.14 at 6:14 pm

Let’s cut to the chase.

Revenue neutral carbon tax. Make it big. All oil and gas on federal lands is made available for drilling. The numbers vary but it looks like it is trillions of dollars. Based on an extremely quick reading regarding elasticity just about any carbon tax would not offset that value. But I definitely could be wrong. Someone run the numbers.

Acceptable to Republicans? I say, Yes a majority of Republicans would support this. In addition to the riches for oil companies we could stress that consumption instead of income and capital would be taxed! Drilling Jobs! Maybe dangle the thought of royalty checks for everyone! Remember the overall tax rate stays the same! [Heck if it is important give them a small cut for a few years, why not !?] All around a very good deal!

Acceptable to Democrats? I say, No. Never. Drilling hurts bunnies and unicorns. No drilling. Fight climate change by thinking green thoughts.

Independent of any carbon tax, the bigger your P for very bad climate change, the more you should support drilling for natural gas on federal lands. Right? Natural gas has 2/3 the carbon foot print of oil. Suggest that instead of banning light bulbs to your average Democratic Environmentalist. Have fun.

Who are the tribalists? They are! :)


In my ideal world we would apply a fairly large chunk of the revenue, 20 – 40 billion, towards basic R&D and maybe prize money for renewable sources. While cutting out a bunch inefficient subsidies and loans for renewables.


John Quiggin 05.03.14 at 6:15 am

@someguy This experiment has already been conducted. Former Repub Congressman Bob Inglis has been trying for years to find a package of measures that would induce Repubs to support a carbon tax. He has had zero success, and was primaried out of Congress for his pains



Walt 05.03.14 at 7:13 am

I think someguy88 meant the Bunny and Unicorn Congress, not the US Congress.


bad Jim 05.03.14 at 9:11 am

Lee Arnold, thanks so much for so much food for thought, and apologies for anything I’ve said in the past.

At first I considered this paradoxical:

“white males are found to be more accepting of a wide range of risks than are other adults.” — “caused by a subgroup of white males who reported high levels of risk acceptance—30% of the white males in their national sample. This subgroup of risk-accepting white males had an affinity for hierarchy, had greater trust in authorities, and opposed democratization of risk management”

Risk-taking and authoritarianism strike me as antitheses, but maybe that’s just my business background. In the military they’re obviously synonymous. “Take that ridge! Hold this line!” I know this happens, but it’s not where I come from.


Ebenezer Scrooge 05.03.14 at 12:34 pm

Everything I know about the psychology of tribalism I learned from “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” with a small dash of Nietzsche for theoretical flavor.

It’s amazing how closely every wingnut trope concerning the nature and motivation of “liberals” tracks that of The Protocols. Money grubbing, dishonest, verbally skilled, physically weak, alien. At the same time, the American Right is quite philo-Semitic, I think sincerely so. (To explain right-wing Jews, I recommend Babel, or Trilling’s discussion of Babel, or Podhoretz’ famous essay.)

I would go so far as to say that racism is secondary here. American racist discourse is more subordinationist than eliminationist. Ann Coulter’s eliminationist rhetoric is aimed at the liberals, not black folk. Properly subjugated black folk are not the threat–the alien Jews are.


someguy 05.03.14 at 4:34 pm

John Quiggin,

No it hasn’t. The difference between my proposal and Bob Inglis’s is trillions and trillions of dollars by some estimates it is


as high as 128 trillion dollars.

And after a little research it looks like that number is probably a decent estimate it is not a joke. Might be lower but we are talking about tens of trillions of dollars. For that kind of money and an end to green subsidies you should demand 10s of billions of dollars in R&D.

Bob Inglis is asking everyone to eat a plate of broccoli because it is good for them. I am offering free money. A royalty check for everyone and Exxon becomes richer than God.

No one on either side is even trying. No in the US really cares about climate change on either side or you would see something like that on the table.


The Democratic proposal is a 60% refundable carbon tax that has died in committee. That doesn’t qualify as a real effort.


reason 05.04.14 at 10:05 am

How does selling our reserve assets (and increasing the immediate supply of energy) help fight global warming?
I’m a bit lost. Just because Natural gas has gross only 2/3 the carbon footprint of oil, doesn’t mean that it is a net benefit to extract more of it. Have you ever heard of Jevon’s paradox? (And surely a tax will reduce the benefit to Exxon and will encourage Exxon to fight the tax).


J Thomas 05.04.14 at 12:21 pm

$128 trillion is a lot of money. How many lies would you be willing to tell for $128 trillion?

If it was really worth that much, and we nationalized it, we could just about pay off the national debt with it.

So there’s the possibility for a deal. If the Democrats give the GOP $128 trillion, they will allow the Democrats to impose a carbon tax on consumers — provided that taxes on the rich are reduced enough that no extra revenues come in.

The trouble is, for the natural gas to be worth that much, we would need permanent energy prices to go very high and stay there. We would have to suppress alternate energy which is considerably cheaper.

I’m afraid there has been a unit error, it isn’t $128 trillion, it’s $128 million. Mistakes like that can happen to anybody.


SusanC 05.04.14 at 1:24 pm

In addition to the rational reasons for concern about GMO’s, there may psychological factors which make it seem particularly threatening (relative to the actual risk, as far as anyone can know what the actual risk is): it challenges our world-view — the separation between “natural” plants and animals vs “artificial” machines.

I think the phrase “Frankenstein foods” is rather revealing.

There’s a similar aversion to the idea of genetically modified humans. (The rational objection being that embryology is poorly understood, and it could take several generations before the downside of a heritable genetic change becomes manifest; plus eugenics has kept some pretty bad company in the twentieth century). There’s a psychological aversion to the idea of genetically engineered people that goes beyond the rationally-perceived risk.


novakant 05.04.14 at 3:31 pm

Blind faith in scientific progress is irrational. We don’t have to realize everything just because it is technologically possible – contrary to what the people in power want us to believe there simply is no such imperative. We are humans, we have a choice.

Europeans don’t want GMO and Europeans don’t need GMO, but everybody and their dog seems to be hellbent to force it upon them. And I don’t think anybody needs genetically modified humans for that matter.


someguy 05.04.14 at 8:30 pm

J Thomas ,

No it isn’t 128 million or 128 billion or 12.8 trillion but 128 trillion.


Cartel. Let the tax float. World demand is and will keep surging.


John Quiggin 05.04.14 at 8:58 pm

@someguy Tabarrok (your source) values oil at $100/barrel and omitted extraction costs. Bearing in mind increasing costs at the margin, and looking at past experience, I’d say $70/barrel extraction costs for shale and far offshore, which is the great bulk of this. Convert my $75/ton CO2 tax to $30/barrel (factor is 0.43), add it in, and you get a big round zero.


Collin Street 05.04.14 at 9:54 pm

> There’s a psychological aversion to the idea of genetically engineered people that goes beyond the rationally-perceived risk.

You do realise you’re presuming that you’re the only rational person here, that disagreement is ipso-facto insanity.

Remember: if there’s a disagreement then objectively you’re about as likely to be right as wrong, more-or-less: if you believe you’ve got a strike rate significantly higher than that you’re either delusional or fighting below your weight.


reason 05.05.14 at 7:53 am

“Cartel. Let the tax float. World demand is and will keep surging.”

What language is that in? I understand each of the words individually but the meaning completely excapes me.


J Thomas 05.05.14 at 12:36 pm

“Cartel. Let the tax float. World demand is and will keep surging.”

What language is that in? I understand each of the words individually but the meaning completely excapes me.

I’m pretty sure he’s saying that the market for burnable fossil fuels is so insatiable that we will be able to produce around 6 quadrillion cubic meters of natural gas and sell it for around 20 cents/cubic meter and make a great big profit.

He’s assuming that we will burn fossil fuels faster and faster despite the rising cost, and that there will be no effort to burn less and no competition from any alternative fuel.

“World demand is and will keep surging.”

So we can sell as much as we can collect.


We won’t have to worry about free market competition bringing the price down, so we can sell it all at high prices.

“Let the tax float.”

This part I’m not sure about. Maybe he means that demand will be so high that we can tack a carbon tax on it and the government can get a lot of money from the tax without reducing sales much at all, which would be good for the government. Or maybe he means something else entirely. Possibly a “floating” carbon tax would have the rate carefully adjusted to make sure it didn’t reduce demand.

I’ve forgotten why I’m paying attention to this.


someguy88 05.05.14 at 2:52 pm

John Quiggin,

So at $50 dollars a ton it works and there is plenty of money to divy out?

I could be wrong. It would not be the first time.

At a 70% extraction cost we are left with 38 trillion dollars. I get 100 billion per $25 dollars of carbon tax. That means we go from paying 1.5 trillion to 1.8 trillion for energy consumption.


To be safe I will base it off of just the oil and gas numbers. We move from 1 to 1.3 trillion in price. A 30% price increase at .5 reduces demand by 15%. That is 150 billion per year. Same thing at 20% and 1.5 trillion. Over a 100 year time horizon I get a loss of 15 trillion dollars. That leaves 23 trillion dollars to divide.


someguy88 05.05.14 at 2:54 pm

J Thomas,

When the price decreases the tax increases. That keeps prices and investment high and consumption low.


J Thomas 05.05.14 at 4:31 pm

Someguy88, when consumption is low then profits are low and investment is low and tax is low.

To make much money off this you need for consumption to be high.

So you and I have our goals at skew angles. I want investment in research toward energy production that will be cheap and carbon neutral. You want the US government to give your company all its methane so you can sell it at a high price to be burned.

I don’t want a small carbon tax that will disappear when your cartel raises the price. I want a carbon tax that will strongly encourage people to stop burning fossil fuels.

You want a carbon tax that will be revenue-neutral. We impose the carbon tax which is not particularly progressive, and we reduce some progressive taxes to make up for it, like we could reduce income taxes on rich people, or cut capital gains or inheritance taxes more. Then when fuel costs go up enough to eliminate the carbon tax maybe we can cut government expenditures….

But I want a carbon tax that is neutral for consumers. Collect the tax from fossil fuel producers or importers. Then give it all to voters, every week, and every voter gets the same amount. It’s a money transfer from people who use more than their share of fossil fuels to people who use less. I’ll talk about it as if it was only for gasoline, because that simplifies the picture. With a $20/gallon tax on gasoline, people on average use about 1 gallon/day of gasoline. So the government has collected the tax and it sends it to us, each of us gets $20/day. The average American is no worse off than before, he spends $20 extra on gas and he gets $20 to pay it. Americans who in fact use no gasoline and don’t buy any products that needed gasoline for their creation or transport, get $20/day for their achievement. Americans who use 4 gallons/day of gasoline pay $80/day extra for gasoline and receive $20/day to help them, until they figure out how to stop being such gas hogs.

A consumer-neutral carbon tax would be a big help toward getting the USA away from fossil fuels at minimal suffering. We would have a strong incentive to develop cheap alternative fuels, and yet on average consumers would not be hurt at all.


someguy88 05.05.14 at 5:13 pm

J Thomas,

For 23 trillion dollars you can have whatever you want. 100s of billions in R&D and design the tax rebate however you want.


someguy88 05.05.14 at 5:14 pm

Also 70% extraction cost implies how many millions of jobs and how many trillions or 100s of billions at the very least in extra tax revenue?


Jeff Heikkinen 05.06.14 at 5:24 am

“has literally turned 360 degrees”

Not a very substantive point, I know, but the frequent misuse of “turn 360 degrees” bugs me so much that I have to congratulate you for actually using it correctly here. Most people who use this phrase should say “180 degrees”, as that is what leaves you pointed in the opposite of your initial direction, but here, for once, you really do mean they went all the way around and ended up right back where they started.

You lose points for misusing “literally”, though :-).


J Thomas 05.06.14 at 11:55 am

So you argue that if it costs a whole lot we can hire a whole lot of people to do it? That’s suspiciously close to a Broken Window fallacy.

How come you, a right wing tribalist, are coming here and telling us the kind of stupid ideas you guys say that the lefties are stupid to believe in? Do you think we’re stupid lefties?

Why are you doing it in a thread about right-wing tribalists?


someguy88 05.06.14 at 2:08 pm

J Thomas,

I think that high extraction costs strongly imply high labor costs. How is that tribalism?

Millions of people are employed in oil and gas extraction and production. Getting 10s of trillions of dollars more out if the ground is going to employee 100 of thousands more at any realistic level of cost. Without even taking into account any multiplier. Higher costs imply more labor.


J Thomas 05.06.14 at 4:44 pm

“I think that high extraction costs strongly imply high labor costs. How is that tribalism?”

There might easily be high labor costs, although a lot of it might be high fossil fuel costs instead.

But if a whole lot of people have to work to extract fuel that we used to get with minimal effort, that is not a plus. It’s a minus.

Methane at high prices doesn’t make us rich. (Except maybe the cartel.) If methane sells hugh it means energy is expensive and we are poor. To get good times we need cheap energy. Working hard for expensive energy is not that different from paying some people to break windows so we’ll have an excuse to pay other people to replace them.

Fossil fuels are expensive, they pollute, and they make CO2. They have pretty much run their course. We need a better alternative and if we don’t get it we’ll be hurting.

You want the US government to give away all the methane so it can be sold and burned fast, while keeping the price high enough to generate big profits. Then you tell me that if we burn a quadrillion cubic meters of methane we can afford a carbon tax, and there will be lots of jobs, etc. It sounds like you think I’m a stupid liberal tribalist and all you have to do is say the right words that sound OK and I’ll help you get the government to give you trillions of dollars at my expense.

I’m not a liberal, I’m something you don’t understand. But somehow I find it easier to talk to smart liberals than smart conservatives. They don’t spend so much effort trying to fool me.


TM 05.06.14 at 5:10 pm

Another data point on tribalism, both in the right wing and in the mainstream media:

“For Justices, Free Speech Often Means ‘Speech I Agree With’”

Adam Liptak quotes from the study: “While liberal justices are over all more supportive of free speech claims than conservative justices,” the study found, “the votes of both liberal and conservative justices tend to reflect their preferences toward the ideological groupings of the speaker.”

This does not however accurately reflect the data. All the conservative judges ruled with statistical significance in favor of conservatives. They favored conservative speakers over liberals with 20 to 50 percentage points. The hardliners Thomas, Scalia, Alito and Roberts were 40-50% more likely to rule for a conservative. A judge can hardly get any more explicit about his political bias.

On the other hand only one of the liberals, Stevens, was found with statistical significance to favor liberals, and only by 16 percentage points. The liberals ruled in favor of conservatives 38 to 51% of the time and in favor of liberals, 40 to 63% of the time. The conservatives ruled in favor of liberals only 9 (Alito) to 43% (Kennedy) of the time but in favor of conservatives 51 to 65% of the time.

Liberals respect their opponents’ freedom of speech. Conservatives, not so much.

Why do the authors both of the study and of the NYT article promote the “Both sides do it” mantra when in fact, the data clearly show that one side does it? Because of tribalism. It’s part of the centrist belief system and empirical reality will not change that, ever.


TM 05.07.14 at 2:30 pm

On reflection, I have to correct the above statement: this is not evidence of tribalism but rather of crude ruthlessness. I don’t believe for a minute that the extremist judges rule the way they do due to “unconscious” biases. They know exactly what they are doing.

Tribalism may to some extent be a useful description of what happens at the hapless base of the right but it completely misses what is going on at the top. The leaders of the movement are ruthlessly focused on conquering power and they just do whatever they have to do. That is the real difference, the one that matters, between the modern left and right and all the talk about tribalism, cultural cognition, and scientific illiteracy is just a distraction.

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