Why do people reject climate change?

US Democrats did not come to support climate change because they sat down and confronted the evidence, read the scholarly journals, and evaluated the climate models.

Joseph E. Uscinski
15 September 2015
Imagining conspiracies

Climate Truth/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Climate Truth/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Despite the fact that climate scientists are in near total agreement that climate change is real, manmade, and harmful, about 40 percent of the US population rejects the scientific consensus. This is not necessarily a big deal in and of itself. Lots of people reject scientific consensuses – evolution and the age of the earth come immediately to mind – and this denialism does not seem to have any appreciable impact on our daily lives. What makes climate change different from these other issues is that the current skepticism of climate change has stymied attempts to address its potentially deleterious effects with public policy.

Democratic governments rely on popular support to craft, pass, and enforce policy. Given that the US public can’t even seem to agree if climate change is real or not – it seems impossible for legislative bodies to make public policy that could address it. At best, the president can act unilaterally around the edges, but comprehensive and long-standing policies – whatever those would entail – will have to wait.

Why do so many Americans reject anthropogenic climate change? Unlike other contentious issues in the US – abortion, gay marriage, etc. – climate change carries with it a strong scientific consensus about the need for action and the consequences of non-action. One can make a reasonable case that abortion is either good or bad, and then suggest appropriate policy. But one cannot argue that, based on the best available evidence, climate change is not happening. As scientists gather more evidence over time and new information comes to light, perhaps the current consensus will be revised. And just because most climate scientists believe that anthropogenic climate change is happening, does not mean that that any specific policy action is the ‘correct’ one. But as it stands, that there exists a scientific consensus is not contestable.

Since the late-1980s, pollsters have invested heavily into documenting the public’s opinions toward anthropogenic climate change, and here is what we know so far: First, awareness has increased so that now the vast majority of Americans are aware of the climate change issue; and second, whereas Republicans and Democrats started out in the 1980s viewing the issue similarly, they have since polarized, so that now most Republicans reject anthropogenic climate change while most Democrats accept it. 

Because of Republicans’ resistance to climate science, many have accused them of being “anti-science” writ-large. Such a generalization may be too broad. For the most part, Republicans seem to embrace science and technology the same way that Democrats do. While in opinion polls Republicans reject climate science and evolution (two facets of science that Democrats accept), there are facets of science that Republicans seem to accept but Democrats seem to reject. Take for example, the safety of genetically modified food. The scientific consensus on the safety of these foods is as clear as the science on global warming, but Democrats more than Republicans continue to question the safety of these foods. And the anti-vaccination movement seems to have a stronger hold among Democrats than among Republicans.    

Others have claimed that Republican resistance to climate science is a sign of a widespread right-wing conspiratorial mentality. This is not an unreasonable claim to make given the conspiratorial rhetoric that most climate change deniers engage in. Climate deniers, for example, refer to the prevailing science as a ‘hoax’, ‘sham’, and ‘conspiracy’. But, my research casts doubt on this claim as well. Republicans seem to be just as conspiratorial as Democrats, and Democrats seem to have little problem employing conspiratorial rhetoric when it suits their needs. Think of Hillary Clinton’s claim that “a vast right-wing conspiracy” was the cause of her husband’s troubles. In the case of climate science, Democrats have had little problem accusing energy companies of engaging in a vast conspiracy to reap massive profits while killing off the planet.

It may be that with the scientific consensus in favor of anthropogenic climate change being so strong, Republicans have little choice but to turn to conspiratorial rhetoric as a rebuttal. So it may not be conspiratorial thinking that drives Republicans to invoke climate change conspiracy theories, but rather more traditional mechanisms that simply are expressed in conspiratorial terms. 

Political scientists have known for the better part of a century what drives political opinions. People have a set of predispositions – coming mostly from their childhood socialization - that color how they view new pieces of information. The predispositions – take partisanship for example – affect what news sources people listen to, what politicians and commentators they trust, and what information they take as credible. Therefore, a Republican and a Democrat could view the same piece of information and come to very different conclusions about it.

Much of the information that people receive comes from elites (i.e. politicians) and elite sources (i.e. newspapers and cable news). People choose which elite sources to listen to based upon their predispositions so that, for example, Republicans tend to watch Fox News and Democrats read The New York Times. These news sources in turn respond by featuring a certain set of elites and a certain set of ideas. It should not be a surprise then that Republicans will receive information from Republican elites, and Democrats will receive information from Democratic elites. On climate science specifically, Republicans will be inundated with elite cues suggesting that climate change is a hoax and Democrats will be inundated with cues suggesting that climate change is real and happening now. Republicans and Democrats – despite coming to very different conclusions – are acting in a similar fashion. They are both products of their socialization and information environments. 

While, in this instance, Democrats happen to have opinions in line with the prevailing scientific consensus, they are not the angels in the climate change debate. Siding with the scientific consensus does not make Democrats necessarily smarter, more accepting of science, or better at evaluating scientific evidence than Republicans. Democrats came to support climate change not because they sat down and confronted the evidence, read the scholarly journals, and evaluated the climate models, but rather because they accepted cues from their elites (which is exactly what Republicans are doing).

The denial of climate science has been viewed by many as a unique phenomenon. Given the clarity with which climatologists speak on the topic, it does at first glance seem strange that a large portion of the US would deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change. This is not to mention that many of the arguments in favor of climate change skepticism are awash in conspiracy theories. But for the most part, our traditional understanding of opinion formation explains climate attitudes for the most part. In other words, Republican elites should be held responsible for Republican denial of climate change.

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