In the 19th century, settlers and scientists alike believed in climate change because it fit nicely within the national mythology of the time. Today, Americans and those who aspire to a supersized American lifestyle are inclined to deny climate change because it doesn’t.
To be fair, blaming humans for global warming isn’t quite accurate. A third of the surplus CO2 in our atmosphere right now was put there by less than 5 percent of the world’s population. So you could argue that most humans had very little to do with global warming. Much of the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of a single country — the United States. Per capita, Americans contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere than any other nationality.
It might be more precise to call it American-made climate change.
This is largely because of our way of life.
Compared to the rest of the world, Americans own larger homes, drive more cars, and use more energy than every other nation except China — but China has more than four times our population. Throughout the 20th century, our very conception of what it means to be an American became irrevocably tied to a rampant consumer culture. Gone were the days of Manifest Destiny where the American Dream lay somewhere hundreds of miles away in the untamed Wild West. Now a hard working American patriot need only take a trip to the department store or dealership or real estate agency to obtain their piece of the American Dream. After all, the US has more shopping malls than high schools.
As the US became pitched in an ideological battle with Communism, the American way of life became a global export. Just as Manifest Destiny reshaped the American West, the American ideals of freedom, capitalism, and unbridled consumerism began to reshape the Western world. But as it turned out, tying your national identity to the amount of goods and services you consume burns a whole lot of fossil fuel.
Here’s where it becomes clear that global warming denial isn’t about whether or not the climate is actually changing — it’s about a refusal to accept that a certain way of life is changing. This is why climate change denial roughly breaks down along party lines. Conservatives are overwhelmingly more likely to deny climate change because the shear magnitude of societal and economic adjustment necessary to effectively combat global warming goes against much of their core ideology.
This makes climate change as much a cultural issue as an environmental one. And to fix it, we not only have to modify our behavior, we have to reevaluate some of our most cherished beliefs.
Not an easy prospect.