The University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Social Movements is hosting a dialogue on science and politics, and I’m rather pleased with my contribution: “Will Climate Change Denial Inherit the Wind?” Do check out the other essays in the dialogue, especially Jeffrey Guhin’s discussion of some results from his observations of creationist Muslim and evangelical Christian schools in New York, and Kelly Moore’s debunking of 5 myths about science and politics.

I’ve been noodling around with the ideas in my essay for a while, ever since reading Michael Lienesch’s In the Beginning, which uses the Scopes trial and the rise of creationism and fundamentalism to introduce the methods of social movement theory.  In reading the book, I was struck by the power of those tools, and by parallels between the rise of creationism as a movement and what’s happening now with climate change denial.  When the folks from Notre Dame wrote looking for an essay, I was glad to have an excuse to finally get those ideas down on paper (or in electrons).

Creationism doesn’t persist just because of some quirk of human cognition, nor because of religion, nor because reporters mishandle science, nor because of poor public school science classes. Creationism is a movement, and can’t be understood outside the context of that movement. Creationism originated in the United States, in a particular historical milieu, and persists because the early creationists were able to link their movement to the broader rise and spread of the fundamentalist movement. By linking antievolutionism to a core part of a certain group’s religious identity, and by forging strong political and cultural ties, the movement was able to establish a permanent foothold in American society, and to shape how evolution is perceived even by those outside that movement.

It didn’t have to be that way. American and British religious communities didn’t reject Darwin’s ideas en masse when they were first published. Even in The Fundamentals, the collection of essays that established and lent its name to fundamentalism in the 1910s, many essays accepted evolution. Some accepted it entirely, others rejected common ancestry while accepting natural selection, others rejected natural selection while regarding common ancestry as obviously true, and a few rejected evolution outright.  It took the Scopes trial, the death of William Jennings Bryan (not himself a fundamentalist), and a shift in the demographics of fundamentalism for creationism to become a defining trait of fundamentalism. Once that link was established, we can trace a shift in the perception of evolution, from a scientific idea to an idea competing in the religious sphere. You see evidence of that link in public polls and in impromptu comments by Miss USA pageant contestants.

I think the same thing is happening with climate change, and I trace out the evidence for that process in the essay for Notre Dame. You can see it in public polling, as liberals become notably more accepting of climate science while conservatives become notably less accepting. You see it in the behavior of politicians, as many of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates had endorsed climate science and climate action in their previous public service, but during the primary felt obliged to disavow those policies, declaring them “a mistake,” “clunkers,” etc. Indeed, Senator Lindsey Graham, who helped write and sponsor the climate bill in 2009 wound up declaring himself unsure about climate science a year later, while Senator McCain, who pushed climate bills throughout the Bush years and in his presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008, has opposed any such action through the Obama years.

If it is true that climate change denial is becoming a defining trait of conservative politics in America, that would be tragic. Fortunately, I think there’s cause for hope, and that’s where I end the Notre Dame essay, and where I’ll end here.