climate change

Apr 10, 2012

Conservatives and climate change: it’s complicated

New research provides some intriguing insights into why, and what sort of, conservatives oppose climate change and distrust scientists, writes Noel Turnbull.

Noel Turnbull, adjunct professor of media and communications at RMIT University, writes: New research provides some intriguing insights into why, and what sort of, conservatives oppose climate change and distrust scientists.

Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has recently found that there are significant differences in how certain groups think about science and the scientific community — particularly discovering that the conservatives most likely to distrust the scientific community tend to better educated than those who do trust it. The research has been published in an article, Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010 (American Sociological Review 77(2) 167-187).

The research examines:

“differences in trust and group-specific change in these attitudes over time. Results show that group differences in trust in science are largely stable, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest. The patterns for science are also unique when compared to public trust in other secular institutions. Results show enduring differences in trust in science by social class, ethnicity, gender, church attendance and region.”

Now science has always been politicised — and sometimes the scientific process itself has been politicised (i.e. Lysenko in Stalinist Russia) — but it is increasingly politicised in different ways. According to Gauchat three main hypotheses have been advanced over the years about attitudes to science. The cultural ascendancy thesis predicts a uniform increase in public trust in science across all groups. This might be called the Enlightenment view in which, from Bacon onwards, scientists have been banishing superstition and revolutionising our knowledge of the world. The alienation thesis suggests a cultural backlash against technocratic authority has affected levels of scientific trust (think here of the impact of environmentalists, counter-cultural activists and other modern day mystics). The politicisation thesis predicts ideological conservatives will experience group-specific declines in trust.

Gauchat sought to test all this by looking at the section of the US General Social Survey (GSS) which has been sampling confidence in institutions from 1972. Specifically he looked at the question relating to trust in “the Scientific Community” and respondents choices between “a great deal”, “only some”, “hardly any” or “don’t know.”

Previous research on the topic has suggested that education is associated with greater levels of trust in science. Age is non-linear with trust declining and then increasing (probably mainly due to a belief in the life-saving capacity of modern medicine). Underprivileged groups, women, non-whites, lower income families and Southerners (US version) also have lower levels of trust. However, Gauchat says, “The results (from the GSS) are quite profound because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.”

Basically, possibly mirroring Australian experience, educated and other conservatives thought science was fine in the 1970s and 80s when it was a convenient stick with which to bludgeon environmentalists and others, but became not so fine when it became a justification for government action on issues such as climate change and pollution control.

Conservative (specifically Republican) attitudes to climate change are analysed in another recent paper Republicans and Climate Change: An Audience Analysis of Predictors for Belief and Policy Preferences by various academics from George Mason, Yale and American Universities. The authors are Justin C. Rolfe-Redding, Edward M Maibach, Lauren Feldman and Anthony A. Lieserowitz and the paper is available here.

Starting from the polling data which shows that Democrats are more likely (79% vs 38%) than Republicans to believe that climate change is occurring, the authors looked at factors which influenced that situation and whether there were opportunities revealed by audience analysis and segmentation to change attitudes.  They found that there were Republicans with a robust belief in climate science although other research has also found a strong media effect — for instance, if you watch FOX News you are less likely to believe in climate change. Similar research in Australia would probably find that reading The Australian has a similar effect although, as with all media effect research, we need to keep in mind Veblen’s insight that people choose media because it reflects their views rather than changing their views because of the media they consume.

The paper looks at a host of determinants of attitudes to climate science and reviews much of the research on the subject as well. The review reveals that “many Republicans who believe in climate change remain silent because they fear their views are in a minority within their own party, further relegating the debate to vocal critics of climate change”.

Australia’s conservatives are in the reverse position of course, where most climate science denialists (among politicians at least) have to pretend that they believe and will take action even while there is a chorus of business leaders and a few clerics (Cardinal George Pell for instance) who proselytise against climate science — all supported by systematic and sophisticated global PR campaigns.

Of course, reflecting on the differences between conservatives in various countries it is interesting to look at some current differences between Republicans, Liberals, and David Cameron’s Tories. Cameron’s party is serious about climate change and supports a price on carbon, is about to legalise gay marriage and UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has just commented on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict saying: “Systematic, illegal Israeli settlement activity poses the most significant and live threat to the viability of the two-state solution. The Israeli government’s policy is illegal under international law, counter-productive, destabilising and provocative.”

Just imagine a US Republican presidential candidate, a Liberal Shadow Minister or even an ALP Foreign Minister saying the same thing. At this rate we will all have to be very precise about when we use the word Tory and about whom.

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10 thoughts on “Conservatives and climate change: it’s complicated

  1. Roland

    Guys please take it easy on the conservatives, will you?

    they need our support and sympathy.

  2. John for a sustainable future

    The problems we are now facing are due to out of control population growth. The main factor driving this population explosion is our ability to create energy to make our lives easier. When you combine this with our natural genetic behaviour which is self survival with the least amount of effort, you get population growth. Energy allows us to have more than we really need to survive well, which results in greed. Greed requires an endless desire for more which is called economic growth. Economic growth or wealth requires more and more population. Wealth however allows women to become educated, so wealthy populations now decrease in numbers. Our future on a planet that will become very different in just a few decades due to massive climatic change will depend on our ability to redirect the energy we can create into providing wealth, but not wealth in the form of money, but in wisdom. By educating all people to understand that living sustainably in our environment, managing our health both physically and mentally and managing our time is the greatest wealth, not greed, money and consumerism. This wealth is called happiness.

  3. izatso?

    pretty much ….. and as JFPE asks (he asks us, see what he does there ?), he asks, “Do you want a Cull ….. ? Some of these people want ‘a Cull’ so much they bleed …….. “thank you for your input, goodbye”. Charmin’

  4. Microseris

    Could it be conservatives are just selfish b*stards who want more than their fair share?

  5. Steve777

    JFPE – you’re right on two points:

    1. Conservatives have historically accepted the world as it is: end slavery? Decent lives for common people, not just the wealthy? Allowing women a role outside the home? Universal education? etc etc – no, not practical, too expensive, bad for the economy. Anyone who thinks otherwise they labelled an impractical dreamer or trouble maker.
    2. Mother Nature will deal with us when she’s good and ready – that’s the problem – if we continue with business as usual, she will deal harshly. Not Gaia turning on us but the blind outworkings of the laws of physics.

    Why do so many conservatives seem to think that people who don’t agree with them are impractical, not to say wicked or stupid? People who you call ‘lefties’ have not always been right but if conservatives had their way all the time over the last 200 years most of us would be working in sweatshops for $1 a day.

  6. JamesH

    Perhaps JFPE believes we should all move to Arcturus when we’ve used Earth up?

  7. Johnfromplanetearth

    Your average lefty do gooder and i know a few believe they are ‘searching’ for something while they are convinced that conservatives vehemently ‘believe’ in something and nothing will change their minds. Lefty’s wish to live life as they would like it to be, not as it really is, they live in a fantasyland and everything that is wrong with the world is the fault of Western Civilisation. Try the alternative and see how we all get along. Look at the cradle of civilisation itself in the Middle East and tell me is this what you really want? Environmentalists are only interested in their own habitat, they don’t really care about the planet, they don’t really care about climate change, earth day or anything other than a clean place for themselves to live. Mother nature will deal with us all when she is good and ready, she laughs at us daily. Look at the size of the Universe and put into some perspective our position in the cosmos, look at the size of our Sun compared to the star Arcturus? The climate always changes, it will continue to change whether we are here or not, meanwhile our world population has more than doubled in 50 years, what do you all want…a cull?

  8. 2dogs

    Most centrists and left-wingers believe that climate change is a single problem that can be solved by government action and technology.

    Sorry I completely disagree. I believe that you would find that most “left-wingers” believe it is an amazingly complex problem that requires us to radically alter our lifestyle. As has been stated so many times before, the western lifestyle requires another 2 to 3 planets to sustain it.
    However I do believe you have it right with the free market and conservatives throwing around the “dirty socialist” catch cry. If we have to fight so bloody hard just to get a price on pollution I view it as an amazingly small chance to get the majority of the population to change their lifestyle. I am so pessimistic for the future of my children.

  9. Steve777

    I think the reason for the difference in attitudes to climate change across the political spectrum is a result of the nature of the problem and how we could hope to address it. Basically, the challenge posed by climate change is similar to that posed by a major war. Any action with any prospect of success would require a major mobilisation of resources across society and across nations, including major sacrifices and impacting many powerful vested interests. Further, there is no prospect of any short term or medium term rewards and in fact we could never prove whether action was successful or whether the deniers were right. I just can’t see how any free market address the challenge without significant Government leadership and action, as well as international cooperation. To free marketeers this is socialism and I am sure that the honest position of many conservatives is that the cure is worse than the disease. The intellectually honest position would be to urge that we adapt (build sea walls perhaps), but if it is easier to convince a large tranche of the electorate that there is no problem, many are prepared to do just that. Throw some powerful interests that would be adversely affected by action on climate change and you see the situation that we have today.

    It looks like the outcome of AGW is going to be determined by the laws of physics. If that is what happens, let’s hope the deniers are right.

  10. calyptorhynchus

    I think it’s a case of “the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light”.

    Most centrists and left-wingers believe that climate change is a single problem that can be solved by government action and technology. In fact, it’s the bit of the iceberg you can see above the water, the iceberg of ecological disaster. Even if we can solve AGW, behind it looms the greater problem of our overuse of resources and the fact that, to be honest, there are just too many of us (humans). To solve this will require not only government action and technology, but an entire revolution in thinking, where we abandon conventional notions such as economic growth, and embrace the idea that a declining population is the only way to make human survival long-term more likely.

    Conservatives have better subconscious disaster detectors (as they are more pessimistic by nature), but they are less likely to want to move out of conventional ways of thinking. This is why they look at the first, most obvious problem (AGW) and cover their eyes and ears chanting “Na, na, na, go away nasty facts!”

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