The story of how a conservative-leaning libertarian was converted into a climate change believer seems like a legend or myth. But when Jerry Taylor spoke Nov. 8 in Franklin & Marshall’s Mayser Gymnasium, he assured the audience that it was true.
Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, spoke at length about his own shift from climate change skeptic to believer, jokingly calling it a transformation from “Darth Vader” to “St. Paul.” He went on to tell the audience attending F&M’s Common Hour, a community conversation conducted each Thursday classes are in session, about why he changed his mind.
Taylor spent 23 years at the Cato Institute, an American libertarian think tank, building succinct, effective rebuttals to use against climate change advocates, often debating with them on television. It was after one of those TV appearances that his opponent told him to dig deeper into a particular study he cited. He did and realized that a lot of the sound bites that climatologists at Cato had fed him were cherrypicked to reinforce their arguments and they didn’t tell the whole story.
Taylor continued to do his due diligence, delving into scientific and economic arguments against action on climate change and realized that, after more than two decades of dedicating his time and energy to Cato, he was wrong. He left and founded Niskanen, which advocates for the imposition of a global carbon tax for the purpose of offsetting the effects of climate change, among other polices.
Taylor then got to the root of why it is that, despite overwhelming scientific proof, many conservatives and libertarians remain skeptical about climate science.
Motivated cognition, or “using all your intellectual might to believe the things you want to believe,” plays a large part, said Taylor. “Leftists are the ones who have been identified with carrying the climate change narrative in American politics,” said Taylor. “And it would force people on the right to say that Al Gore was right all along,” he joked. Therefore, conservatives and libertarians distance themselves from an issue associated with the left.
Similarly, he cited social and cultural identity as another factor. Humans get a lot of personal utility from their relationships, and a sudden change of beliefs that go against those of our circle of friends could threaten those relationships. Taylor himself acknowledged that he lost friends due to his shift in perspective.
People also often base most of their political beliefs on what they hear from their “political champions,” such as politicians, TV personalities or publications. If their champions, who have informed most of their opinions, are proven to be wrong, it can call into question all of their beliefs.
Despite laying out many possible explanations for conservative and libertarian resistance to the call to act on climate change, Taylor offered little in the way of solutions for how to unify both sides on climate action. Ultimately, he said, everyone—in the U.S. and the world—must work toward a solution despite their political affiliation or previously held beliefs.