The Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Climate Crisis
The Founding Era’s belief in facts and science has too often been replaced with political identity as a test of truth.
The Declaration of Independence is a document deeply rooted within the Enlightenment. The Declaration begins with a note of cosmopolitanism, referring to “a good respect to the opinions of mankind.” There may be then the famous passage declaring “these truths to be self-evident, that every one men are created equal, that they’re endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that amongst these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That is followed by an expression of the social compact theory, that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And to prove their right to revolt, the Declaration says, “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” Facts, not Bible passages or the views of authority figures, were the coin of the realm.
An encyclopedia of philosophy points to 4 recurring themes in Enlightenment thought: modernization, skepticism, reason and liberty. Modernization signifies that beliefs and institutions based on absolute moral, religious and political authority (corresponding to the divine right of kings and the Ancien Régime) will change into increasingly eclipsed by those based on science, rationality and spiritual pluralism.” Among the many tenets of the Enlightenment was a belief in scientific progress (and in the potential for progress more generally). Such early American figures as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were in other ways adherents to the Enlightenment.
The scientific enterprise is an try to put into practice Enlightenment values, searching for truth through remark and experiment, evaluation, and open discussion. Skepticism about this enterprise actually exists amongst some on the Left, nevertheless it is amongst conservatives that it’s strongest. As an example, a 2021 Pew poll found that:
“There was a gentle decline in confidence in medical scientists amongst Republicans and Republican leaners since April 2020. In the most recent survey, just 15% have a terrific deal of confidence in medical scientists, down from 31% who said this in April 2020 and 26% who said this in November 2020. . . .
Republicans’ views of scientists have followed an analogous trajectory. Just 13% have a terrific deal of confidence in scientists, down from a high of 27% in January 2019 and April 2020. The share with negative views has doubled over this time period; 36% say they’ve not an excessive amount of or no confidence in any respect in scientists in the most recent survey.”
Similarly, Gallup found that confidence in science had collapsed amongst Republicans, from 72% in 1975 to 45% in 2021.
We see the identical division about climate change. In 2021, as an illustration, only 29% of Republicans believed that the consequences of worldwide warming have already begun, versus 46% in 1997. Yet the consequences and the supporting evidence had grown much stronger over this time period. And the proportion of Republicans believing that global warming is brought on by human carbon emissions fell from 65% to 32% from 2003 to 2021 – an example of massive willed ignorance. For too many, climate skepticism has change into an article of religion and a badge of collective identity. Evidence and evaluation don’t enter into it. Faith in authority – on this case, Donald Trump and Fox News– has replaced imagine in science.
Enlightenment thinkers believed that scientific understanding would allow progress in addressing human suffering. A rejection of their values now threatens our possibilities of escaping a grim future for the planet. Surely, two centuries after the deaths of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison, Americans can find it in themselves to do higher than that.
PS In case you missed it last Friday, my short video on the large Supreme Court climate change decision is here.