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The Rise of Innovation Conservatives and Energy Conscious Creationists

Some on the right are challenging congressional Republicans to increase federal investment in science and technology.

On Sunday at the Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will penned a plea to newly elected Republicans to heed the advice of the National Academies and “rev the engine” of American innovation by boosting Federal support for scientific research, a government role that will serve as one of the “pre-requisites for long-term economic vitality.” As Devon Swezey at the Breakthrough Institute notes, Will is the latest voice to emerge from a network of Innovation Conservatives, thought leaders such as the NY Times’ David Brooks and the American Enterprise Institute’s Steve Hayward who are urging “Congressional Republicans to take a more measured approach toward federal programs and challenge them to increase federal investment in science and technology.”

Support from conservatives is not new.  Major areas of science such as food biotechnology, the Human Genome Project, nanotechnology, medical research, and information technology have received strong bi-partisan — if not boosterish — support from Congress and Presidents dating back to Nixon’s “war on cancer” and earlier.

In an article by Phillip Kennicott at the Washington Post today, comes a sign of another significant movement within American conservatism, the Energy Conscious Creationist. 

As Kennicott profiles, the Christian fundamentalist group behind the Creationist Museum in Kentucky have plans to build a LEED certified “Ark Encounter” theme park that will feature geothermal heating, rainwater capture, active and passive solar heating and specialized window glazing. Even the 500-foot-long ark, the largest timber-framed structure in America, will use sustainable heating, cooling, and lighting designed to reduce energy use, reports Kennicott,.

Ark Encounter represents the outcome of a shift in how Christians think of two basic biblical ideas: dominion and stewardship, notes Kennicott. This theological shift along with the perceived economic advantages of innovation constitute new common ground for engaging organizations and communities dismissive of climate change on the problem of energy insecurity. 

From Kennicott’s article quoting a leader from LEED and Mike Zovath, senior vice president of Answers in Genesis, the creationist group financing the new Ark Encounter theme park:

Roger Platt, senior vice president of global policy and law at the Green Building Council, says the success of the LEED standards among conservative groups has a lot of to do with the fact that they are voluntary and cost-effective. His group not only created the standards and advocates for “progressive building codes” but also lobbies for “climate change legislation, including carrots and sticks.” He says there isn’t a LEED system for boats, and that includes arks. But his group “is ambidextrous enough” to encourage green building, whether or not the builder believes in climate science, he says.

Zovath is a climate change skeptic. “Personally, I don’t buy into it,” he says. But he likes the bottom line of energy efficiency.

“There is a pretty significant return on investment,” he says. But it’s not just about financial return. It also has to do with how he defines stewardship, the responsibility for the Earth that Christians believe was given by God in several key verses of Genesis, especially 1:28.

“We are to be in dominion over everything that He created,” Zovath says. “Not to waste it, not try to destroy it.”

Of course, hard-liners such as Joe Romm who are engaged in a perceived “war” with Republicans on climate change have been quick to dismiss Will’s plea to Congress (“hypocrite of the year“). Other liberal commentators such as PZ Myers who have created a career out of attacking Christian conservatives will similarly dismiss the significance of the Ark Encounter example.

These attributions are unfortunately shared among many of my progressive friends who read these commentators, their blogs, related books, and articles.  When you have defined your identity and a view of politics in terms of a perceived enemy, and consume narratives that reinforce that identity, it’s difficult to accept counter-narrative evidence.

As science policy scholar Daniel Sarewitz has noted, just as Republicans have defined themselves as “strong” on national security and Democrats “soft,” in respect to science, Democrats define themselves in a similarly binary way.  For Democrats, Obama’s Inaugural speech pledge “to restore science to its rightful place” has made for great wedge politics.

A more constructive approach than dismissal is to pose challenging but respectful questions to conservatives regarding exactly how they would implement their advocacy for increased science funding, as Andrew Revkin did in response to George Will at Dot Earth.  Out of this dialogue can come the identification of new ideas, compromises, and a road map for policy action.

Writing at Desmog blog, my progressive friend Chris Mooney asserts that the contradiction between Will’s dismissal of climate science and his support for science funding is an example of cognitive dissonance at work, a theory from psychology that offers an explanation for how we tend to resolve contradictory information and positions as a way to preserve our social identity.

But cognitive dissonance cuts both ways in the politics of climate change and science policy, as evidenced by the trouble that many progressives have accepting — and working with — conservatives who strongly support scientific funding or creationists who are committed to energy conservation and climate action.


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