Opinion

The economics of denial

Why high-carbon states don't believe in climate change

This is the editor’s letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Upton Sinclair said this nearly a century ago, but it continues to explain much, including many Americans' adamant refusal to accept the reality of climate change. In the past three weeks, two monstrous hurricanes of historic intensity devastated large swathes of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean. Climate change didn't cause Harvey and Irma, but climatologists suspect a warming planet made these killer hurricanes more destructive. (Total damage: upwards of $200 billion.) It's simple physics: Hurricanes draw their energy from warm ocean waters, and the Gulf, Caribbean, and southern Atlantic are significantly warmer right now than their historic norms. Warmer air also can carry more moisture. Harvey dumped more rain on Houston — about 50 inches — than any storm in U.S. history. Irma howled at 180 mph for 37 hours, a record, and was the second Category 4 storm to hit the U.S. in three weeks. Coincidence?

Perhaps. But this is where paychecks, motivated reasoning, and tribal politics enter the picture. As Ron Brownstein points out at CNN this week, the U.S. can be divided into "high carbon" and "low carbon" states. High carbon states produce large amounts of oil, gas, and coal, and rely on industries that burn lots of fossil fuels. They are invariably "red" or Republican. Low carbon states, located mainly on the coasts, have economies that depend mostly on financial, service, and information-age companies. They are blue. In red states like Wyoming, North Dakota, and Texas, the per-capita carbon dioxide emission levels also are much higher, because they're largely rural and people rely on cars and machinery. In 2016, President Trump carried 20 of the 21 states with the highest per capita carbon emissions. In these states, the implications of accepting climate change are understandably alarming — more alarming, evidently, than even two Category 4 hurricanes.

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