Report sheds light on why conservatives are more skeptical of climate change

A new study examines why people of different political leanings think about climate change in opposite directions.

Approximately 97 percent of the scientific community agrees that human activity is causing climate change. However, there’s still a substantial percentage of the American public that chooses to ignore the overwhelming evidence. Notably, a sizeable slice of climate change deniers skew to the right on the political spectrum. But why?

Why in the face of countless studies showing hard evidence that the climate crisis is caused by humans do right-wing conservatives seem to shrug it off as a natural phenomenon or outright deny that it’s happening at all? That’s a question that The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre tried to answer with a recent study.

Numbers Don’t Deny

As The Conversation reports, a 2017 poll showed that 92 percent of Democrats believe that the Earth is getting warmer. Meanwhile, just 59 percent of their Republican counterparts agree. It seems that Democrats are more open to evidence of climate change.

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In 2006, those numbers stood at 79 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans. In other words, the number of Democrats who came around to climate change in the past decade is almost double that of Republicans.

Those who drag their feet on climate change make it tough for any significant climate policy to get through Congress. When it comes to more stringent environmental laws and regulations, 77 percent of Democrats say it’s worth the cost. Compare that to just 36 percent of Republicans.

Partisan Divide

So, why is there such a partisan divide? Past studies have indicated that public skepticism lingers for a number of reasons. These include “a lack of knowledge or understanding of the causes of climate change, a lack of sense of urgency or insufficient awareness about the issue,” according to The Conversation. However, this doesn’t explain why the issue is so partisan.

More recent studies suggest that people look for information that is consistent with their political affiliation. Moreover, folks also selectively expose themselves to stories that jive with their current beliefs. In other words, some conservatives may seek out media that challenges what the scientific community knows about climate change and aligns with their own beliefs. Through its study, The Conversation posits another explanation for how motivations and ideologies lead to political polarization on the climate issue.

Congruent Information

Naturally, The Conversation and its team found that what people believe influences what they visually home in on when browsing. This, in turn, influences their actions, or lack thereof.

For the study, the team showed a graph to people of both political affiliations. The graph indicated the change in global temperature from 1880 to 2013. Liberals tended to focus more on where the graph began to rise sharply around 1970. Conservatives keyed in on where the graph leveled off from about 1940 to 1960.

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In another phase of the experiment, the team deliberately biased participants by highlighting either the rise or the level with color. They then asked participants if they would donate to an environmental organization or sign a climate change petition. Interestingly, conservatives were more likely to take action when the level part of the graph popped out at them and vice versa.

The study shows promise in finally being able to sway the conservative vote to the side of battling climate change. Unfortunately, just publishing a study like The Conversation’s will no doubt ring some “fake news” bells. Nonetheless, understanding how to impart information in a friendly manner will go a long way in tackling the climate issue.