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How the Right Wing's Worldview Is Torn Apart By Climate Change Science (Major Case of Cognitive Dissonance)

A majority of Republicans in Congress reject the scientific consensus that human activity is altering the climate. It's a striking example of cognitive dissonance.

This article has been updated.

"I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that," were the  words of GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in front of about 200 people at a town hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire earlier this month. The former Massachusetts governor went on to say, "It's important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors."

Romney's statement wasn't radical or controversial in the least bit. So why did the Right freak out and declare Romney's statement to be " political suicide "?  

This reminds me of a situation back in April, when The Hill’s Ben Geman reported that all but one of the Republican members of the US House of Representatives  rejected a Democratic amendment “that would have put the chamber on record backing the widely held scientific view that global warming is occurring and humans are a major cause.” The following day the GOP-led House voted  255 to 172  to strip the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate greenhouse gases. It is remarkable that in 2011, a majority of Republicans in Congress reject the indisputable  scientific consensus  that human activity is altering the climate.

Why are conservatives, despite the mounting evidence, so unwilling to accept that climate change is a serious threat caused by greenhouse emissions?  

It seems climate change is now part and parcel of America’s “culture wars.” Similar to abortion and other social issues, climate change has become a partisan issue, with liberals backing the science, and conservatives denying it. Often, when pondering the reasons for climate change denial, we immediately blame the media for allotting disproportionate airtime for industry backed psuedo-scientists to sow doubt in the minds of viewers, in their quest for "balance." Of course this analysis is correct, but incomplete.

It’s been widely proven that fossil fuel interests, most notably  ExxonMobil, which “used the tobacco industry’s playbook and an extensive arsenal of lobbyists and “experts” to manufacture disinformation designed to confuse the public and stifle action to address climate change,” according to an investigation by The Union of Concerned Scientists.  As documented by  Greenpeace, “in recent years this corporate PR campaign has gone viral, “spawning a denial movement that is largely immune to reasoned response.” While the more powerful climate change deniers have manipulative objectives, such as preserving their vested interests in fossil fuels or political posturing with their constituencies, many on the Right actually believe climate change is a hoax. This PR campaign has contributed immensely to denial, but there is still more to the story.

Thus, the question remains: Why is the reality of climate change such a threat to the Right? A new study published in the Spring 2011 issue of  Sociological Quarterly  delves into this very topic. The study finds that conservatives' refusal to acknowledge the very real threat of climate change, has more to do with its implications rather than skepticism of scientific facts. It's a classic case of  cognitive dissonance .

Stanford University social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the theory of cognitive dissonance, based on a  famous case study  from the 1950s. Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated a cult that was awaiting what they believed would be the imminent end of the world on December 21, 1954. When the prediction failed, rather than recognize the error of their beliefs, the cult members' faith grew stronger, so strong they began to proselytize. People will go to great lengths to rationalize their deeply held beliefs, even more so when exposed to evidence that challenges their worldview.

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