Rejecting Climate Change: Not Science Denial, but Regulation Phobia

49 Pages Posted: 17 Jan 2017

See all articles by Edward L. Rubin

Edward L. Rubin

Vanderbilt University - Law School; Vanderbilt University - Department of Political Science

Date Written: January 16, 2017


At this juncture, it seems clear that the most significant impediment to a worldwide effort to combat the disastrous consequences of climate change is the United States. It seems equally clear that the reason why the United States has assumed such a counterproductive role is the existence of a set of attitudes within its political discourse that is generally described as climate change denial. To some extent, these attitudes come from elite groups, such as the Republican Party leadership and the energy industry, but these groups can only dominate public policy because their attitudes resonate with a large portion of the American public. This article explores the reasons why so many people in the U.S deny climate change.

The article rejects the familiar theory that climate change denial is part of a broader rejection of scientific principles by the American public. There is no such general attitude; Americans, including political conservatives, generally accept scientific findings. Evolution is an exception because of specific conflict with religious doctrine not present in the climate change case. Some of the opposition to climate change relies on conspiracy theories, which Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of American politics. But this does not provide an explanation; like conspiracy theorists in general, climate change deniers do not condemn their opponents for using science, but rather endorse or even glorify science and condemn their opponents for using it incorrectly.

The more convincingly explanation is that climate change denial is allied to more general anti-regulatory attitudes that prevail among large segments of the public. But the opposition is not typical of mainstream conservatism. Rather than acknowledging the existence of a problem, while arguing that regulatory responses should be used with caution, the current conservative position is the complete refusal to acknowledge that a problem exists in the first place. This is what some survey researchers have described as a “boomerang” effect: in response to factual information linked to a normative recommendation, recipients of the information act in direct opposition to the recommendation. The reason they do so in this case is that a rational policy to combat climate change seems to demand a major alteration of society. Combatting climate change not only expands the scope of regulation, but involves regulations that effect a major transformation of our basic economic system and our personal lifestyles. Almost uniquely (toleration would be another case), it demands a transformation of internalized attitudes. This has produced what can be fairly described as a phobic reaction among many people, that is, an irrational and persistent fear of a given situation.

The article concludes by considering some policies that might circumvent this phobic reaction: mass transit for commuting, intelligent homes, and the encouragement of local food production. In each case, these policies create appealing options for people without demanding major changes in their lifestyle.

Keywords: Climate Change, Global Warming, Science, Public Opinion, Regulation, Conspiracy

Suggested Citation

Rubin, Edward L., Rejecting Climate Change: Not Science Denial, but Regulation Phobia (January 16, 2017). Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, Forthcoming, Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 17-3, Available at SSRN:

Edward L. Rubin (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

Vanderbilt University - Department of Political Science ( email )

VU Station B #351817
Nashville, TN 37235-1817
United States

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