America and Israel have a lot in common. First of all, a strong political right tied to a fundamentalist religious establishment. Second, a highly polarized atmosphere in which each side sees the other as a deadly enemy. Third, a culture in which individuals increasingly side with their social-political-religious tribe rather than thinking independently — and mistrust anything coming from the other side and its so-called experts.
All these commonalities feed into a meta-commonality that is crucial to our future, yet rarely discussed. I’m talking about a condition called denialism — when the public is reluctant to believe experts even though their information is accurate and urgent. In America, that includes scientists and their talk of climate change. In Israel, it means generals and their talk of trusting the Arabs.
Let’s start with what just happened in Louisiana. The state received more rain in two days than California got all last year. At least 60,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, costing billions. Tens of thousands were left homeless. Thirteen died. The Red Cross called it the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration categorized it as a once-in-1,000-years weather event.
Charles Boustany, a six-term Republican congressman who’s running for the Senate, went national this August as his state struggled with the biblical-scale rain and floods. He emerged as the most passionate voice pleading Louisiana’s case to the nation. He argued on television and in op-eds that Louisiana’s suffering wasn’t getting enough national media attention. That could mean it won’t get clean-up volunteers such as those who flocked to New Orleans after Katrina. It could make it harder to convince Congress to approve multibillion-dollar aid such as New York got after Sandy.
Compounding their woes, 86% of affected Louisianans lacked flood insurance. “Many of the victims,” Boustany wrote in a FoxNews.com op-ed, “don’t live in a federally-designated flood plain,” meaning a high-risk area where federal law requires flood insurance. Tens of thousands, uninsured, have lost everything.
Here’s where it gets awkward. The Obama administration tried last year, in January 2015, to expand the definition of “floodplain” by executive order, thus expanding zones requiring insurance. But Obama’s program, the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, was defunded that April in the Republican-led House, through an amendment introduced by two Louisiana congressmen: Ralph Abraham…and Boustany.
Obama’s flood measure, Boustany sneered on his website, “estimates where future ‘floodplains’ may exist based on increased flooding risk caused by climate change.” (Quote marks around “floodplains” are in the original.)
A year later, Boustany’s district was one of the hardest hit by the floods.
The cause is simple. As the planet warms, warmer air holds more moisture. Warmer oceans yield more evaporation. The result is rain clouds with more water to drop. It’s not complicated, unless you don’t want to know. What’s harder to figure out is why so many people don’t want to know.
There’s no clear answer to that. But there is a pattern. Many regions suffering most from the effects of climate change are solid Republican red-state areas. One example is Tornado Alley, stretching from Oklahoma north through the Great Plains, where the twisters’ intensity is rising sharply. Another example is the swath of the Southeast, from Alabama through Georgia to the Carolinas, which was paralyzed for a week last year by Snowpocalypse, an unusual Southern blizzard. Yet another example is the area plagued by once-rare mammoth deluges. In the past 15 months alone, America has had no less than eight downpours categorized by NOAA as once-in-500-years. They hit five states. Four — Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia — were in the South.
In one sense the overlap is purely coincidental. Storms don’t visit states because they vote Republican. Still, the situation worsens partly because Republican lawmakers block efforts to make it better. They’re hurting all of us. But, coincidentally, because of geographical circumstance, they often hurt their own constituents the worst.
Even worse, their constituents agree with them. Researchers at Yale University released a series of maps in April 2015 showing, by state, county and congressional district, where people believe or disbelieve climate change. Eeriest is the map showing states where majorities believe “global warming is caused mostly by human activity” and states where they don’t. It bears an astonishing resemblance to the familiar red-state/blue-state presidential map.
Just 41% of Americans believe climate change is caused by human activity. That makes us an outlier in the developed world. In Europe, fully 60% believe it. Our Congress is the world’s only legislative body opposed to climate reform. Americans, it seems, suffer more than most others from denialism.
Why America differs isn’t clear. Much has been written about it, but most explanations examine human characteristics — psychological, social or economic — that make people disbelieve hard facts. But the human condition can’t be the explanation. If it were, America wouldn’t differ from Europe.
One way to explore America’s difference is to look at another Western nation plagued by denialism — a nation that faces an existential threat and won’t believe the experts: Israel.
The gravest existential threat on the Israeli agenda isn’t climate change, of course, but the Arab-Israeli conflict. The experts whose warnings are dismissed aren’t scientists but generals.
Much of Israel’s military brass concluded after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that settlements undermine Israeli security. Israel’s counterattack against Syria’s invasion of the Golan Heights was dangerously delayed to evacuate civilian settlers. But the generals kept their views private. No solution was pending, so challenging popular opinion seemed pointless.
Attitudes began to change with the first intifada in 1988. Military intelligence believed that the Palestine Liberation Organization was abandoning hope of destroying Israel and preparing to make a deal. In the decades since, through the Oslo Accords, the second intifada and the Arab Peace Initiative, the military has become increasingly convinced that leaving the territories and separating from the Palestinians is possible — and staying put is suicidal.
Important segments of the political leadership, particularly on the religious right, conclude the opposite: that yielding to the Palestinians is suicidal, not to mention an affront to God’s will. Since the ascendancy of the right under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009, the tensions have gone public and grown steadily worse. Politicians on the right openly accuse the army of cowardice for avoiding confrontation. In recent weeks, top military commanders have begun accusing the right of sabotaging Israel’s defense. In Israel, as in America, much of the population simply doesn’t believe the professional experts.
Can we fix our poisoned dialogue? It’s hard to see how, but one way might be to look beneath the denialism itself, focusing our attention on the factors that feed into it in both countries. If we target those factors — say, the political right’s ties to a fundamentalist religious establishment — we just may have a chance of weakening denialism’s stranglehold on our minds and our future.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @JJ_Goldberg
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).