Climate Consensus – the 97%
Facts can convince conservatives about global warming – sometimes
A new study finds that when they understand climate basics, some conservatives are more likely to accept that climate change is happening
Al Gore on Sky TG24 News TV programme in Rome, Italy in 2010. When ideological and political biases get in the way of clear thinking about climate change, many conservatives focus on Al Gore.
Al Gore on Sky TG24 News TV programme in Rome, Italy in 2010. When ideological and political biases get in the way of clear thinking about climate change, many conservatives focus on Al Gore. Photograph: EPS/REX
Thursday 7 August 2014 23.00 AEST
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While there’s a 97% consensus among climate science experts and their research that humans are causing climate change, only about 67% of Americans believe global warming is even happening, including 25% of Tea Party members and 61% of other Republicans. Only about half of Americans realize that humans are causing global warming.
Social scientists have been investigating this disconnect between the evidence and expert consensus, and public opinion. Is it caused by information deficit and misinformation surplus, political and ideological biases, or some combination of these factors?
There’s one school of thought among social scientists that information just doesn’t matter – in fact, it might even be polarizing. In essence, liberals feel as though they’re on Team ‘global warming is a problem caused by humans’ while conservatives identify with Team ‘no it’s not.’ Some social scientists believe this cultural identity is so strong that scientific evidence, facts, and information can’t break through it. A 2012 study led by Yale’s Dan Kahan seemed to support this idea, finding that conservatives who are more scientifically literate are less worried about global warming.
However, that study looked at general science literacy. A new paper led by Sophie Guy, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, looks at climate-specific knowledge and ideology. The authors conducted a survey of a national sample of 335 Australians and tested their climate knowledge by asking them to correctly identify factors that are and aren’t causing the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases (for example, deforestation, automobiles, pesticides, and ozone depletion). They also asked participants, “How much do you feel you know about climate change?,” about their climate-related beliefs, and their ideology. The authors concluded,
…[climate] knowledge dampened the negative influence of individualist ideology on belief in climate change.
Individualists favor small government and self-sufficiency, in line with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Individualists were less likely than communitarians (those who think interdependence is an important part of society, i.e. “it takes a village”) to believe that climate change is happening. However, individualists with high climate-specific knowledge were significantly more likely to accept the climate is changing than those with low climate knowledge.
Interaction between specific knowledge and individualism on belief that climate change is occurring. Interaction between specific knowledge and individualism on belief that climate change is occurring. Photograph: European Journal of Social Psychology, Guy et al. (2014)
Communitarians were equally likely to accept that climate change is happening regardless of their level of climate-specific knowledge, because the facts mesh with their ideology.
In another interesting result, perceived climate knowledge made hierarchists (those who favor distinct socioeconomic classes – closely related to the ‘religious right’ in the USA) more likely to reject that humans are causing global warming. This may explain Kahan’s results, because those who have solid general scientific literacy may have an inflated perception of their understanding of climate science.
Thus, scientifically literate hierarchists may be more likely to let their biases influence their opinions on the causes of global warming because they have an inflated perception of their understanding the underlying science. This may also explain why we so frequently hear from engineers, geologists, and physicists who are skeptical of human-caused global warming despite lacking expertise in climate science. Because of their scientific backgrounds, they may have an inflated sense of their understanding about climate science, and thus draw incorrect conclusions that conform to their ideological biases.
There are two pieces of good news in this new study indicating that information does make a difference and climate education isn’t a lost cause. Across the participants as a whole,
People who were knowledgeable about climate change believed more strongly that it is happening, that it is being caused by human activities, and that it has negative consequences than those with less knowledge.
Second, conservatives of a libertarian flavor were more likely to accept that global warming is happening when they had a better understanding of the climate. This indicates that some conservatives are persuadable; that information, evidence, and facts can potentially break through their ideological filter.
On the other hand, the results of this study also suggest that conservatives of a more hierarchist flavor may not be persuadable by climate information and evidence. As their perceived understanding of climate change grows, their acceptance of human-caused global warming falls.
There’s no question that ideological biases play a big role in rejection of global warming. However, the results of this study indicate that for a majority of the public, including some conservatives, information that increases understanding about the climate can also increase public acceptance of global warming.