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 in the Enlightenment. The Declaration begins with a note of cosmopolitanism, referring to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” There is then the famous passage declaring “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This 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 four recurring themes in Enlightenment thought: modernization, skepticism, reason and liberty. Modernization means that beliefs and institutions based on absolute moral, religious and political authority (such as the divine right of kings and the Ancien Régime) will become increasingly eclipsed by those based on science, rationality and religious pluralism.” Among the tenets of the Enlightenment was a belief in scientific progress (and in the possibility of progress more generally).  Such early American figures as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were in different ways adherents to the Enlightenment.

The scientific enterprise is an attempt to put into practice Enlightenment values, seeking truth through observation and experiment, analysis, and open discussion. Skepticism about this enterprise certainly exists among some on the Left, but it is among conservatives that it is strongest. For instance, a 2021 Pew poll found that:

“There has been a steady decline in confidence in medical scientists among Republicans and Republican leaners since April 2020. In the latest survey, just 15% have a great 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 a similar trajectory. Just 13% have a great 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 have not too much or no confidence at all in scientists in the latest survey.”

Similarly, Gallup found that confidence in science had collapsed among Republicans, from 72% in 1975 to 45% in 2021.

We see the same division about climate change.  In 2021, for instance, only 29% of Republicans believed that the effects of global warming have already begun, as opposed to 46% in 1997. Yet the effects and the supporting evidence had grown much stronger over this time period. And the percentage of Republicans believing that global warming is caused 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 become an article of faith and a badge of collective identity. Evidence and analysis don’t enter into it.  Faith in authority – in this case, Donald Trump and Fox News– has replaced believe in science.

Enlightenment thinkers believed that scientific understanding would allow progress in addressing human suffering. A rejection of their values now threatens our chances 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 better than that.

PS  If you missed it last Friday, my short video on the big Supreme Court climate change decision is here.

, , , , ,

Reader Comments

3 Replies to “The Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Climate Crisis”

  1. Dan, if academics had educated and motivated the public to demand that politicians take actions to control global warming we would have solved many of the problems we have been warned about since the first Earth Day in 1970.

    But that means you must stop characterizing yourselves as pure, refusing to take on the sort of complications and “impurities” that you claim to come from being public.

    Instead, a most recent exhortation had to be issued again in 2022: “The world must come together before the ability to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is out of reach,” said US Climate Envoy John Kerry in response to the IPCC report. “What the world requires now is real action. We can get to the low carbon economy we urgently need, but time is not on our side.”

    So I ask you again, what is UC doing to meet the required urgency today, due to irreversible impacts of global warming we are suffering around the world today?

  2. After 40 years of historical study and documentation, Will and Ariel Durant determined that when a civilization declines, it is through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.

    Today, our civilization is failing because of Global Warming and Environmental Disasters, Wars, Pandemics, Politicians who enable Mass Murders of Children, Minorities and out of control acts of Violence, overthrow of Democracy by the Power of Money over Politicians, etc.

    Thus, “For too many, climate skepticism has become an article of faith and a badge of collective identity. Evidence and analysis don’t enter into it. Faith in authority – in this case, Donald Trump and Fox News– has replaced belie(f) in science” is a most destructive consequence of our political and intellectual leadership failures that can destroy our civilization if we continue to fail to educate and motivate the public to demand real action with the greatest sense of urgency because “time is not on our side.”

  3. ONE MORE TIME, MY PARAMOUNT QUESTION IS:

    What is UC doing to meet the required urgency today, due to irreversible impacts of global warming we are suffering around the world today?

    As long as I am unable to get an answer to this question, I can only conclude that Ike is still right in his 1961 Farewell Address when he said:

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.”
    And Kerry’s response to the IPCC report shall become our epitaph:

    “The world must come together before the ability to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is out of reach” —-“What the world requires now is real action. We can get to the low carbon economy we urgently need, but time is not on our side.”

Comments are closed.

About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more

POSTS BY Dan