Friday, December 12, 2014

Climate and Elite Opinion

I have spent a good deal of time observing and participating in arguments about global warming. One striking point that I have not seen discussed is the sharp divergence between elite opinion and mass opinion.

Elite opinion, the New York Times, official statements by various scientific organizations and the like, views global warming as a dire threat, one that requires drastic and immediate action to prevent. Mass opinion, not only in the U.S. but, according to at least one poll I saw, world wide, puts it very far down in the list of what people are concerned about, perhaps tenth or twentieth. This pattern is reflected in the online discussions, where people concerned about warming mostly base their arguments on some version of "everyone who is anyone agrees with me." Their picture of the situation, pretty clearly, is one in which the truth is perfectly clear and it is only uneducated fundamentalists or people in the pay of the oil companies who can disagree.

My reasons for questioning part of that picture, not the fact of warming due to human actions but the likely consequences, I have discussed in past posts here. My general skepticism of elite opinion comes from many past disagreements with it, most notably on political and economic issues. My point here, however, is not about whether the elite view is right or wrong but about the relation between the elite view and the mass view in different countries.

Among western developed countries, Australia appears least supportive of action against warming, Germany most, the U.S. in between. Germany has been involved in a very high profile effort to push down its output of CO2. The current Australian government, so far as I can make out, has mostly rejected calls for anything along similar lines. In the U.S., the President is strongly in favor of climate action, the Congress reluctant to support it, with the result that the administration has been trying to implement its views by regulatory action instead of legislation.

After a summer in Australia many years ago, I concluded two things about the country. One was that it had a larger variety of flavored potato chips than anywhere else in the world, including all the British versions and all the U.S. versions. The second, possibly related, was that Australia had a full range of social classes built almost entirely out of an originally working class population. One implication, consistent with at least casual observation, is that Australians have less respect for their betters, their social superiors, their elite, than any other population on the globe. 

Germany, I think, represents the opposite pattern. The U.S. is somewhere in between. Unlike European countries, the U.S. never had a system with well defined social classes, the sort of system where there was a close correlation between how much money someone had, how much education he had, and how he spoke. One result is that Americans are  less inclined to see all political issues as my class vs your class than Europeans (I must confess that my view of Europeans is heavily weighted towards Great Britain, as the only European country whose language I am fluent in). Another, I think, is that Americans have less respect for their elite.

If I am correct—I am far from expert in the various societies and may be misinterpreting them—there is a pattern. Countries where the elite is more influential are more likely to take costly actions aimed at reducing global warming.

At a final tangent, I recently came across an online post, based in part on another post by a blogger I think very highly of, which nicely stated one of my reservations about arguments for the current elite view of warming.

22 Comments:

At 2:26 PM, December 12, 2014, Blogger John David Galt said...

What's really amusing is that the Germans have now announced they won't be able to meet their own announced deadline for cutting CO2 emissions, and in fact they're going to go up, because their Green party still insists on banning nuclear power.

It must be terrible to be unable to decide which phony emergency you're scared of more.

 
At 3:35 PM, December 12, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Australia is a major coal exporter.

 
At 3:37 PM, December 12, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous: That's true, and offers an alternative explanation.

In the other direction, Germany is far enough north to make solar power relatively unattractive, and is still pushing it.

 
At 5:10 PM, December 12, 2014, Blogger Will McLean said...

Three of Germany's top five imports are petroleum based.

 
At 5:47 PM, December 12, 2014, Blogger Will McLean said...

Solar power is not such a big thing even in German renewable power. They get more from wind and biomass.

 
At 7:06 PM, December 12, 2014, Blogger montestruc said...

My experiance working with a German firm in offshore wind energy is that the Germans are concerned about their dependence on oil from middle east and Russia. They do not see either as reliable.

 
At 8:41 PM, December 12, 2014, Anonymous Gregory Yarmit said...

It is interesting post. It made me think. I think that the level of support for global warming (or any other similar courses) depends on balance of democracy, wealth of government and corruption. The goal of elite is to suck government as much as possible. You obviously need wealth, democracy to be forced to justify share of wealth and just enough of corruption. Too much corruption could kill democracy that is bad for any fake cause. I suspect that Germany has more corruption then USA (just due to long history of socialism), it is wealthiest country in Europe and strong democracy. USA is much more wealth and strong democracy but just not enough corruption (yet) to put it on higher level. Australia, probably, has everything much less. Not knowing polls I suspect that Britain is just behind of Germany.
You will not find wind mills in Russia. It has huge corruption but very little democracy and not much government wealth. You will not find them in China (may be just for show for stupid westerners). It has huge government wealth but no democracy. Most countries like Italy. I love travel to Italy. I found few ugly wind mills. It has a lot of corruption but not much money and problems with democracy.
Support level of masses depends on afforded propaganda. Somewhat helped by free helpers that leave in the bubble like Hollywood crowd.
I cannot find for my theory country with democracy but without corruption. Does anybody know it?

 
At 2:23 AM, December 13, 2014, Blogger Peter Morris said...

There was a carbon tax here in Australia but it was revoked. A lot of people are pissed off that it was revoked. Every mainstream person I've talked to seems upset about it. I have no idea how we got this government when everyone I talk to seems against it. Maybe it's my age bracket (24) and thus a look at things to come.

 
At 3:40 AM, December 13, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

I would not say Germany is particularly elite-oriented. It seems to be more the case in Northern Germany (Prussia) than the south (especially Bavaria), which is also partly reflected in the way people vote. CSU has ruled Bavaria with only one 4year term exception ever since the formation of BRD after the war and often they even have an absolute majority (otherwise they are often in a coalition with a sort of classical liberal FDP). CSU stands for the christian social union - which only operates in Bavaria, but otherwise it is a slightly more conservative and regional (emphasizing the independence and uniqueness of Bavaria) than CDU (Christian democratic union which operates everywhere except of Bavaria and it is the party of Angela Merkel).
The social democrats very rarely obtain more than 20-23% in Bavaria and The Left (Die Linke) has the lowest support in all of Germany (about 3%).

The North of Germany is very different. Social democrats have larger support than CDU in many states (in West-North, in the former DDR it is Social democrats with the more or less communist Die Linke), CDU still fairly high, but significantly lower.

The Green party's support seems to increase westwards and decrease eastwards (that includes Bavaria, which is former West Germany, but bordering Czech republic and Austria).

I've never been to the US, so I don't have a personal experience with how people respect or disrespect authorities. But if I compare the Czechs and Germans (and online Americans :) ), I cannot see much differences and I would not say either society puts an equation sign between elite and merite.

However, France is definitely a much more elite-praising society, it is practically a caste system as almost all politicians come from one school, high government officials from another school and so on. At the same time, France does not seem to be very vocal about "green" energy, so I think there are other explanations.

It is hard for me to understand the German (and even more so Austrian) aversion towards nuclear power. A lot of people are against it and for example Angela Merkel who used to support more nuclear power, has changed her stance (even though I doubt she actually changed her opinions) after the Fukushima hysteria. But I think the support of green power stems from there. Today, without nuclear plants the only other "non-green" option in Europe is burning coal. Germany has even been closing down some nuclear plants and has to be replacing with coal ones, this actually increasing the emissions it produces. Coal plants are not very attractive for very local reasons, because not only do they produce CO2 (unlike nuclear plans...and they also produce radiation by burning the slightly radioactive coal), but they make the local air a lot worse. Those are reasons I think "ordinary people" can relate to. Also, most of European oil comes from Russia, which is not particularly safe in terms of geopolitics.

So I would say Germany is much more for "green" energy because it is above all a lot against nuclear power (for reasons I consider rather unreasonable...and partly mysterious) and because of security concerns with Russian oil and gas. At the same time, the results of actual German policy are heavily influenced by a lot of green lobbying and also the fact that Germany is usually ruled by coalitions and when Merkel needs some extra votes, she is going to support something she would not on her own...so that even if CDU has the highest support and the Greens almost nowhere have more than 10%, their political goals are very often met (also the social democrats have an interjection here with the Green Party)

 
At 4:25 AM, December 13, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Germany and Australia have the same level of confidence in government: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/11/21/confidence-in-government-falls-in-much-of-the-developed-world/

Purely anecdotal I would say that trust in elites in Germany is pretty low and sinking.

 
At 8:13 AM, December 13, 2014, Blogger jimbino said...

One very good way to combat global warming is to wind down the rampant breeding, which the Germans are doing pretty well. Here in Amerika, we encourage breeding, whether by citizens or aliens.

 
At 9:40 AM, December 13, 2014, Anonymous RKN said...

Australia had a full range of social classes built almost entirely out of an originally working class population

More specifically, convicts. Somewhat surprising then -- I read this somewhere -- that modern Australia supposedly has the most law abiding population in the world. I've no idea how this is measured.

Best non fiction book I've ever read: The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes.

 
At 11:56 AM, December 13, 2014, Blogger Josiah Neeley said...

I think this is basically right. To take another issue where you have a big divergence between elite and public opinion: Australia has fairly restrictionist immigration policies, Germany's immigration laws are pretty loose, and the U.S. is somewhere in the middle.

 
At 1:40 PM, December 13, 2014, Anonymous Laird said...

It seems to me that the issue isn't "elites" per se, but rather the desire to expand and centralize government power. That describes most elites (many of whom view government as their own personal power source), whereas in general "non-elites" are less sanguine about expanding government. The Germans are all about centralization and control; Americans and (as far as I know) Australians much less so. England seems to be somewhere in the middle.

My suspicion is that a large number of the elites may not actually believe that CAGW is real or, if it is, that it poses a significant problem, but that doesn't actually matter: it's a cause du jour which provides a great "hook" upon which to hang more government.

 
At 6:29 PM, December 13, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

Peter:

Your comment reminds me of the story of the woman who said that she didn't understand how Nixon could have won, because nobody she knew voted for him.

I should probably add that my impression is it was a real comment, but made by someone who understood the problem with it.

 
At 7:15 PM, December 13, 2014, Blogger Josiah Neeley said...

Prof. Friedman,

I believe the quote you are thinking of is by Pauline Kael, who said the following in response to Nixon's win:

"I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."

 
At 8:32 PM, December 13, 2014, Blogger Jim Rose said...

David, we Australians apparently developed this uppity attitude quite some time ago.

The Australian troops in the First World War had a fearsome reputation as a military force, but a disrespectful attitude to authority.

Australian soldiers weren't much on saluting officers and generally only saluted offices which they respected. This infuriated the British officers.

Consistent with this uppity attitude, the working class simply didn't do as they were told by their betters when it come to voting either.

Left-wing governments are rare at the Federal level in Australia.

The Conservative party is ruled from 1949 to 1972, 1975 to 1983 and 1996 to 2007.

The Labour party governments elected in 1984 and 2007 went out of their way to betray themselves of economically responsible and fiscal conservative.

Both of the labour government selected in 1914 and 1929 split over economic management in the latter case, and over conscription in the former case.

 
At 8:33 PM, December 13, 2014, Blogger Jim Rose said...

David, we Australians apparently developed this uppity attitude quite some time ago.

The Australian troops in the First World War had a fearsome reputation as a military force, but a general disrespectful attitude to authority.

Australian soldiers weren't much on the saluting officers and generally only saluted the offices which they respected. This infuriated the British officers.

Consistent with this uppity attitude, the working class simply didn't do as they were told by their betters when it come to voting either.

Left-wing governments are actually rather rare at the Federal level in Australia.

The Conservative party is ruled from 1949 to 1972, 1975 to 1983 and 1996 to 2007.

The Labour party governments elected in 1984 and 2007 went out of their way to betray themselves of economically responsible and fiscal conservative.

Both of the labour government selected in 1914 and 1929 split over economic management in the latter case, and over conscription in the former case.

 
At 2:05 AM, December 14, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Laird: I think that to say that "Germans are all about centralization" is at least a bit of an overstatement. Germany is a federal republic where each of the 16 Bundesländer (some bigger cities are autonomous city-states, like Washington is in the US) has some amount of autonomy, for example the school systems of different states in Germany vary considerably. They are also smaller in population than the US states, making them slightly more regional in that sense. The taxes are something like 90% federally collected, so in that sense Germany is more centralized than, say, the US.

I'm not exactly sure how it is with Britain, but it does not seem to me that it is less centralized than Germany. It is more opposed to EU centralization, that is true. But firstly, the support of that in Germany seems to be on a decrease, secondly, it seems to me that most of that support simply stems from the belief that it benefits the national interests of Germany (while most of opposition in the UK is based on the belief that it does not benefit the interests of the UK).

 
At 10:52 AM, December 14, 2014, Anonymous vjl said...

"Respect for elite opinion" is difficult to operationalize, but degree-based deference seems a good place to start.

Germany has a strong reputation among academics as a place where you can get things like a nice seat at a restaurant by identifying as "herr doktor professor." There are also clear class boundaries highlighted by the early apprenticeship system.

[source: American academic recently living in Germany.]

 
At 2:22 PM, December 14, 2014, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

vjl: What do you mean by "early apprenticeship"?

Other than that, you may be right, but I have not observed that. Then again, I am just a lowly Doktorand :D Still, my impression is that if you tried to do that in a random restaurant, the chances are you would above all get very odd looks from the staff. But like I said, it could be true. It definitely used to be true in the past in Prussia and Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In Pilsen (where I come from) all the graves that are pre-WW2 have the social stature written on them, so there is (almost) always a name (possibly a title) and the occupation. I guess that does not occur in the US. But that is long gone now. Still, probably more people use titles in Germany (and Mitteleuropa as a whole, except for Switzerland I would guess) than it is common in the US. But that also seems to be fading now.

Also, in German (or Czech...and most other European languages I think) you have the "duzen" and "siezen"...a hierarchic or seniority distinction. And that is still in use (I for example would feel a bit uncomfortable, at least at first, to start "duzen" to someone who is let's say 30 years older than me...or who I don't know well and is not my age or younger, with complete strangers, even my age and younger sometimes...but then, I guess even in the US, a 25 year old employee would not call his 60 year old boss "Joe", but rather Mr. Smith)

However, it seems to be a fairly world-wide phenomenon that some people stop thinking critically about what you say once you are introduced as a scientist. Maybe the US is better at this, I dunno.

 
At 3:44 AM, December 27, 2014, Blogger RJM said...

To add my personal impression as a German:

If someone gets the impression, in Germany authority is respected more than in other countries I wouldn't be suprised. Difficult to narrow that down further, though.

I second Tibor's impression about the mystical opposition to nuclear energy.
I don't understand it either and the hype around renewables in Germany seems closely related.

What I can readily observe: the combination of - let's say - the ecology hype and respects towards - among others - academic elites has quite an impact on public debate (and private discussions).

Maybe the (false) respect for alleged scientific authority in climate matters combined with the gut feeling of a 'bad impact of man on his environment' (most prominently AGW, but also nuclear power) effects the special German situation.

Interesting topic.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home