Do you believe in climate change? It may depend on your politics

A new research paper has analyzed findings of a plethora of studies from over 50 countries to determine what factors influence a person's belief (or disbelief) in climate change.

XL Catlin Seaview Survey/AP/File
Coral after bleaching in American Samoa, Feb. 2015, when the XL Catlin Seaview Survey responded to a NOAA coral bleaching alert. Devastating bleaching of colorful coral is spreading into a rare worldwide crisis, scientists announced, predicting it will likely get worse. Triggered by global warming and the El Nino, record hot ocean water is causing the fragile coral to go white and often die, threatening picturesque reefs that are hotspots of marine life, experts say.

A new study has found that one factor above all others is likely to influence a person’s belief – or disbelief – in climate change: political affiliation.

The research, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, examined myriad studies and polls conducted across 56 countries, and challenged the popular notion that factors such as education, sex, and subjective knowledge are most likely to influence a person’s view on climate change.

The scientists also concluded that even ardent belief in climate change does not necessarily translate into a willingness to suffer personal sacrifice in an effort to address the situation.

“Age, sex and race aren't the issue: it's your deeper philosophies about the free market, about big versus small government, about individualistic versus socialistic ways of responding to societal problems, about whether or not you have a moral suspicion of industry," said the study’s co-author Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland, Australia, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The study itself asserts that a “critical mass of people is skeptical that anthropogenic climate change is real, something that has long been identified as an obstacle to mitigation efforts.”

The researchers involved in the study were hoping to shine a light on the reasons for widespread skepticism about climate change, so these factors can be targeted by a scientific community more and more convinced of the reality of climate change.

“The broader underlying issue is that the scientific world has been surprised at the failure of facts to change people’s beliefs,” says Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth College’s department of government, whose research focuses on political scandal and misperceptions about politics and health care, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“We can’t possibly read all the evidence, so we rely on trusted sources,” continues Dr. Nyhan. “When those sources have differing points of view, we tend to believe those that share our ideology/political views.”

In this latest study, it was found that political affiliation, “specific identification with political parties” as opposed to “underlying political ideologies,” was about twice as important as any other demographic variable in determining someone’s opinion on climate change.

Specifically, those inclined to vote for liberal political parties are more likely to believe in climate change than those who support more conservative ones.

In the United States, this translates into supporters of the Republican Party being more likely to disbelieve climate change, while Democratic Party voters are more likely to subscribe to climate change as a fact.

“We tend to see belief polarization over facts when political elites are divided and are delivering different cues. When elites are united, we don’t see the same polarization,” Dr. Nyhan tells the Monitor.

“If you look at evidence over time, we see Republicans and Democrats pulling apart on the climate change issue; views didn’t used to be so polarized.”

As Nyhan says, this political conflict among the elites tends to be reflected in the media, with reporters trying to represent both viewpoints, even if the facts begin to support one side of the debate more than the other. He adds, however, that this has started to change over the past few years, with some publications giving less of a voice to climate skeptics.

Another aspect of the research looked at how likely people were to modify their own lives as a result of their concerns over climate change, laying down the hypothesis that those believing in climate change would be more likely to engage in “pro-environmental behaviors.”

But the data says otherwise: While people’s pro-environmental intentions are certainly impacted by their stance on climate change, their actual behavior shows less correlation.

“This is not surprising,” reads the paper, “given that intentions are less compromised by practical reality constraints than are behaviors, so the relationship between beliefs and intentions is more ‘pure.’”

The research also supports the assertion that, the more someone subscribes to the idea that scientists are trustworthy, and that there is scientific consensus around climate change, the more likely they themselves will believe in it.

“This shows the importance of driving home the large degree of scientific agreement over climate change to the public,” says Riley Dunlap, one of the founders of environmental sociology and a professor of Oklahoma State University’s department of sociology, in an email interview with the Monitor.

“Yet, as the results indicate,” continues Dr. Dunlap, “the current level of partisan polarization over climate change tends to outweigh other factors, so it's clearly going to be difficult to convince some sectors of the public that it's a serious problem that needs to be dealt with.”

The paper’s authors concur, pointing out that information regarding climate change is “searched, remembered and assimilated” in a way that supports a person’s worldview and political leanings.

An alternative strategy, therefore, is to repackage pro-environmental behaviors in ways that appeal to people’s ideologies rather than working against them, for example as a form of patriotism or "green" technology.

“The findings offer some hope,” concludes the paper, “because psychological factors are more susceptible to targeted interventions than are demographic constructs.”

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