The latest salvo in the war of words about climate change from the blogger in the bowels of News Ltd suggests the recent floods are further evidence that climate change isn’t happening, won’t affect Australians, and that scientists are getting it all wrong.
While there is little to gain from responding directly to the arguments of climate deniers, given the reliance on cherry-picking of quotes and data (or to be more accurate, a willingness to deliberately misrepresent scientific evidence), it is worth pursuing the broader motivations behind climate science denial as well as the psychological factors that influence people’s responses to complex global issues such as climate change.
Why are political conservatives more inclined to dismiss climate science? Can one’s political ideology influence the interpretations of data?
It turns out the answer is yes – communications research demonstrates there is a significant relationship between one’s ‘world view’ or personal ideology and climate change skepticism/denial. It’s an emerging field but there is some strong evidence concerning the predisposition of those who hold a politically conservative ideology and/or free market world view to be much more inclined to reject climate science.
The Institute for Social Science Research and Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland have done some work on this in a recent study that looked at political ideology and acceptance of climate science among Australian politicians. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it found there was strong acceptance of climate science among parliamentarians representing The Greens; moderate acceptance among Labor politicians; but low levels of knowledge among Liberal/National politicians. (Views on risk varied enormously from scientific experts in the latter group in particular, with around 40 per cent of Liberal/National respondents of the view the world could warm 3-4 degrees Celsius before the situation became dangerous, while another 40 per cent didn’t know what a safe global average temperature increase might be).
There are similar findings in the US, where acceptance of climate science diverges along political ideology and party identification, with Republicans less likely to accept that climate change is occurring, more inclined to think news about climate change is exaggerated, and only 30 per cent holding the view that global warming poses a serious threat.
Many people might assume that perhaps their education has been inadequate and they simply need to be provided with accurate and compelling evidence about climate change, and ‘presto’ their views would change. Sadly, it’s not so simple.
Aaron McWright and Riley Dunlap found concern about climate change increases with rising levels of education among Democrats, but decreases among Republicans with higher levels of education and self reported knowledge about climate change, bringing into question the prevailing ‘deficit model’ of communications which assumes that increasing awareness or education about climate science will increase concern and support for action.
The work of decision sciences expert and lawyer Dan Kahan on cultural cognition reveals that one’s ‘world view’ is a significant moderator of how information is processed, such that our willingness to accept information as credible is influenced by ‘cultural predispositions’. In other words, we are more likely to consider sources of information who we perceive as sharing our world view as expert and trustworthy than those who do not. By using ‘motivated reasoning’, people are more likely to recall information that fits with their existing views and to seek out information that supports, rather than challenges, their current thinking.
So it’s not so easy to bring people around to your way of thinking – if you don’t share the same world view. In fact, being exposed to more evidence that is inconsistent with your predisposition to hold that view can lead to even greater polarization of views.
So what can happen using alternate ‘frames’ – like considering climate change as a health issue for example, instead of a global environmental threat?
That does work – people are inclined to consider climate change in a more personal context and support action for mitigation if climate change is framed as a health issue. Ed Maibach from the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, in particular, has found this approach effective in enhancing public engagement.
However a recent study by Hart and Nisbet found that the degree to which one identifies with victims of climate change influences their views. For example, when conservatives are provided with examples of people whose health is affected by climate change who are socially distant, it is more likely to entrench their opposition to the science. Their position was unmoved in response to messages portraying people who were socially similar. Progressives on the other hand, were influenced regardless of social identification, and exposure to messages containing both socially relevant and socially distant examples increased their support for climate mitigation.
But while it might be clear that worldview influences acceptance of climate change science – why is that?
Two distinctly different world views that represent the dominant political discourse are explained by Stephan Lewandowsky, UWA Professor of Psychology as “hierarchical-individualistic” and “egalitarian-communitarian”.
According to Lewandowsky, hierarchical-individualistics believe rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed differentially on the basis of people’s own decisions without collective interference.
Egalitarian-communitarians believe rights and goods should be distributed more equally and society should bear partial responsibility for individual flourishing.
Republicans are more likely to be hierarchical-individualist, while Democrats are more often egalitarian-communitarian. A similar divide could be postulated for Labor and the Liberal/National coalition here in Australia.
So, what to do with this? Clearly, it’s not simple. But having these insights from communications and psychology researchers is enormously helpful.
It appears what does work is to frame messages around climate change using sources that will appeal to and resonate with a range of ideological views. Affirming an individual’s own values is also effective: people resist unwelcome information that challenges their worldview because it also threatens their sense of self. A useful antidote to this appears to be buttressing an individual’s self-worth which can make them more willing to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. This works well with those who identify with the political right. Using pictures is also effective: Nyhan and Reifler’s study revealed this group is more likely to acknowledge that global warming is real and man-made when the information is presented in graphic form.
Using the health frame is powerful for all groups, as long as the message is coupled with examples that respondents can identify with. And while not previously discussed here, there is good evidence that positive messages appeal. So taking the health frame a step further might potentially be even more powerful when it is accompanied by a narrative that paints a picture of an appealing, positive future possible through climate action.
Fiona Armstrong is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Development and Convenor of the Climate and Health Alliance.