Understanding climate change skeptics

This post originally appeared on the Eyes on Environment blog as part of Nature’s Scitable Network.  The Scitable Network hosts a variety of blogs discussing the latest scientific topics in disciplines ranging from chemistry to psychology.

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As a physicist, I am usually hesitant to use the phrase “climate change believer” because I would contend that climate change is not an issue of faith but one of science and rational consensus.  I do not believe in the electrons churning through the circuits in my smartphone; my smartphone works, and its design is based on scientific models, honed over centuries, that include the existence of these subatomic particles.  The smartphone (and, therefore, electrons) exists whether I choose to believe in it or not.  The same basic logic applies to climate change.

But from a social or political point of view, climate change belief is an extremely relevant construct to understand why skeptics exist and how we might go about changing opinions so that climate change mitigation policies are more palatable to the public.  That’s why a recent paper [1] in Nature Climate Change that synthesizes all polls and studies about climate change beliefs is so important.  Tremendous amounts of research have analyzed the factors behind climate change skepticism and the subsequent opinions developed from these beliefs.  This study provides a statistical summary of all these studies to describe which citizens are believers and what values are tied to skepticism.  With this information in hand, we can begin thinking about targeted interventions to change public perception of climate science.

The research study analyzed data about climate change beliefs using a meta-analysis, scientific lingo for a method that combines all the findings from distinct studies and combines them into one statistical analysis to find overarching relationships between variables.  The authors pulled data from five major polling organizations, such as Pew Research, along with 171 peer-reviewed scientific studies that found significant associations between belief in climate change and demographic or psychological factors.

Demographics included information like age, sex, gender, race, income, and education, but psychological variables provided more interesting information about what leads to climate change belief or skepticism. Theoretical models of belief systems break psychological factors into two large categories: 1) antecedent factors that lead to climate change belief, like knowledge, values, and beliefs about science, and 2) downstream factors that arise due to belief in global warming, like intention to act on environmental issues.

So how does this summary of research characterize climate change believers and skeptics?  I’ll break down the results based each of the factors examined.

Do demographics matter?

Yes, but traditional demographic indicators are not the most important factors.  Climate change believers are generally younger, more educated, have more money, and are non-white (which means skeptics are generally older, less educated, and white).  But all these factors are only weakly associated with climate change beliefs, which means it’s crucial to go beyond simple demographics to understand the underlying belief systems.

Instead, political affiliation – Democrat, Independent, or Republican – strongly predicted climate change belief, such that Democrats are more likely to believe in climate change than Republicans.  This may seem obvious, but what I found interesting is that this association is stronger than the connection between political ideology (conservative or liberal) and climate change belief.  This might suggest that groupthink, the psychological effect of similar thinking to maintain conformity to a group, guides climate change attitudes, not just ideology alone.

Also, the characteristic image of the ‘conservative white male’ as the traditional global warming skeptic may persist, but it appears the conservative portion of this portrait may be most important.

What psychological factors lead to belief in climate change?

Again, there are some obvious associations here.  For example, objective knowledge about climate change is strongly connected to belief in its existence, a sign that education could still help change some opinions.

More intriguing is a connection between climate change belief and cognitive shortcuts people use to understand complex problems.  Since it’s difficult to understand in detail something as multi-faceted as global warming, many rely on shortcuts they’ve developed to make decisions and form opinions, known as heuristics.  In the case of global warming, people who have developed heuristics to trust science and scientific consensus are more likely to believe in climate change.  Therefore, the issue of changing opinion goes beyond just global warming – we need to change minds about the usefulness of the scientific method in general.

Finally, there are some revealing connections to weather and weather patterns.  Surprisingly, people that experience extreme weather do not seem to attribute it to climate change.  Instead, a stronger association exists between belief in global warming and those that have experienced long-term changes in weather patterns, like gradual temperature fluctuations.  This could signal the effectiveness of presentations or talks about local environmental changes that emphasize these long-term climate trends.

Does climate change belief lead to social action?

Yes, in general, but less so when concerning specific actions.  This is interesting, as I would assume that strong beliefs in climate change would motivate people to do something about it!   Believers in climate change strongly support questions that are posed hypothetically and broadly, like “Would you support policies to reduce the impact of climate change on the environment?”  But as questions become more specific and more personal (read: affect my wallet!) – “Would you support a carbon tax?”, for example – the connection reduces even for staunch believers.  This highlights the continued difficulty in motivating political and social action even among those who know climate change poses a threat.  Finding a way to activate this portion of the population remain a primary challenge.

So what have we learned?

Traditional demographic categorizations  – age, gender, income, education – don’t matter as much as political affiliations and value systems when it comes to climate change belief.  Heuristics used to make decisions about complex scientific problems seem to be especially important, which signals that general conversations and education about science could go a long way toward changing attitudes about global warming.

Second, reframing arguments to be consistent with a person’s value system is clearly more important to think about than demographic variables.  This study confirms that we will have to shape the conversation around the financial incentives of renewable energy, possibly discussing environmentalism as a form of patriotism, to connect to individualistic value systems that hope to preserve the status quo.

Finally, it appears that all interventions focused to attitudinal change must hit home how climate change affects individual lives.  Awareness of local weather changes lead to stronger belief in global warming, so local presentations, town hall meetings, etc. should tailor discussions to the effects of global warming on local communities.  Demonstrating exactly how climate change mitigation helps individual people’s lives will be necessary to reshape perceptions and ignite political action.

  1. Hornsey, MJ et al. “Meta-analyses of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change.” Nature Climate Change, published online 22 February 2016.
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