What does it take to persuade a climate change denier to change their mind about the threat humanity poses to the future of our planet? Take Donald Trump, for example. After the worst wildfires for a century began ravaging the state of California, with at least 80 confirmed fatalities so far and 1,300 unaccounted for, the US president said that his view on climate change had not altered.
What exactly he thinks is, as on so many topics, somewhat mutable. He used to advance the theory that global warming “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. It was, he has said, “a hoax”. Last month he conceded there might be something to it. “Something’s changing, and it’ll change back again,” he told 60 Minutes. “I don’t think it’s a hoax. I think there’s probably a difference, but I don’t know that it’s man-made.”
California’s governor Jerry Brown has called “irreversible climate change” an “apocalyptic threat” and a report issued by the state earlier this year warned that “by 2100, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise… the frequency of extreme wildfires would increase and the average area burned statewide would increase by 77 per cent.”
There is no doubt that greenhouse gas emissions are man-made. This threat is linked to human activity. The same goes for accountability for a rise in temperatures worldwide. A report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last month warned that the world has just 12 years to ensure a rise of 1.5C is not exceeded, amid warnings an extra 0.5C would have catastrophic effects.
However, in the face of all the scholarly research – Nasa has stated that “97 per cent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities” – there are still some who claim it is a “scam”. Others take Mr Trump’s latest line: climate change might make a bit of difference but who really knows if it’s down to humans?
To the extent that this unwillingness to accept the consensus is down to irritation at the way the expert predictions of scientists are so often presented as incontrovertible fact, the sceptics have my sympathy. We might have good reason to believe their dire prophecies but we cannot actually know they are true. Likewise, when Mr Trump accuses climate scientists of having “a very big political agenda”, that is not entirely false; not least because studying the subject might make it impossible not to become possessed by the view that governments must take action.
More broadly, however, there has been a history of scientific research being used to further political or commercial aims, or being just plain wrong. There was a time, for instance, when public health campaigns told us not to eat too many eggs, as they were high in cholesterol. It was then found that this was cholesterol of a harmless variety and the advice was reversed.
But climate change is in a different category. The evidence is truly in. And surely nobody can think that emitting 1,540 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere since the industrial revolution, as one scientist says we have, is in any way positive or free of effect. Pollution is self-evidently bad, as is the despoliation of landscapes, the reduction in rainforests, shrinking polar ice caps or the prevalence of plastic in our oceans and of microplastics in fish.
The strange thing is that climate change deniers are almost exclusively on the right, with many, if not most, identifying as conservatives. And true conservatives, as the name suggests, believe in conserving the best – of traditions, buildings and ideas, but also of both our rural and urban environment – partly for their own pleasure but also to ensure we take care of what has been bequeathed to us to pass on to our descendants.
There is nothing conservative about draining the earth of irreplaceable resources, or being so unconcerned about plastic waste that the Great Pacific garbage patch is now thought to cover 1.6 million square kilometres of ocean. Neither is there anything conservative about destroying the countryside instead of regenerating cities, to make money from building huge housing estates. Rather, as the philosopher Roger Scruton has put it: “There is no political cause more amenable to the conservative vision than that of the environment. For it touches on the three foundational ideas of our movement: trans-generational loyalty, the priority of the local and the search for home.”
Even libertarian conservatives can see the virtues of an ecological stance. Jerry Taylor was a senior fellow with the right-wing Cato Institute and a denier who then reversed his views on climate change. Still a conservative, he now says: “If you believe in free markets, how are those ends advanced by burning the planet?”
If the answer to that question seems self-evident, then it ought to be one that conservatives – who pride themselves on seeing clearly and avoiding what they believe to be the unrealistic idealism of the left – should accept. But many still refuse to acknowledge the widely accepted reality of man-made climate change.
Theirs is a make-believe world, in which studies can be ignored and decisions have no consequences. As for Mr Trump? Any hope that he too can be persuaded to change his mind and embrace the “conserving” strand of conservatism might be doomed by one inconvenient fact. He is not, and has never been, a conservative by any recognised definition. He is an isolationist, a believer in the power of big government (anathema to conservatives), ideologically inconsistent on a number of fronts, and a stranger to the feelgood and sometimes generous conservatism of Ronald Reagan, which the modern Republican Party claims as its inspiration.
It might only be when climate change affects him or his properties that this wilfully ignorant president opens his eyes to a threat that has already taken the lives of his own countrymen.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia