I have always wondered what role political ideology plays in people’s beliefs and understandings of climate change. A few months back, I came across this topic in a discussion with John Cook, the Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, in an interview about media coverage on climate change. Apart from his academic background in physics and communications, Cook is also the creator and operator of one of the most informative blogs communicating the science behind climate change, skepticalscience.com, which made him a perfect candidate to talk about the media. The topic of the conversation quickly turned, however, to research linking political ideology with climate change belief, an issue which, though related to it, perhaps runs deeper than media bias.
What makes people sceptical about the scientific consensus on climate change?
Basically, people are complicated and there’s a lot of different things that influence their skepticism, but the most dominant influence that’s come out of a number of studies is political ideology. So, in other words, the biggest influence on people’s climate beliefs is actually what they think politically – their political ideology, whether they’re conservative or liberal. And, the more conservative people are politically, the more likely they are to be sceptical about climate change. So the reason for that is not because of the nature of climate science itself but because they don’t like what science is telling us we have to do, which is change the way we consume energy and regulate industry.
Is there something difficult about trying to communicate the science of climate change to conservatives?
There’s been research in this and it’s really a fairly new field of research and it’s actually what my PhD is about. Now, what the scientists have found is when they present climate information – so when they’re trying to present evidence of climate change or talk about scientific consensus – it’s actually had a backfire effect among conservatives, particularly on the more extreme end of the conservative range. They actually become more sceptical in response to evidence of climate change. So, there’s been a few research papers that have tried to explore the ways to frame climate science in a way that doesn’t spark backfire effect, and there’s a couple of theories.
One is to frame the science in a way that doesn’t threaten people’s ideology, and one study tried to do this through two different approaches. Firstly, they presented the science and then said because of what it is telling us we need to regulate carbon emissions. The second approach was to present exactly the same science but then finish by saying, because of what the climate science is telling us, we need to promote the nuclear industry. What they found was the nuclear approach would be more effective with conservatives and just saying “we need to regulate emissions” actually had a negative effect.
So, just framing the science in a way is consistent with people’s values is one proven approach. Another suggested approach has been to affirm people’s identity with the message (a lot of the research is cynical of this method, it seems a little week). But the theory is, people’s political ideology forms their identity, forms how they think about themselves – it’s like the tribe, the group that they belong to. So, when you present science that they see threatens their ideology, it actually threatens their very identity.
Another important aspect of psychology is that we don’t just get our identity from one place, it’s not just from the group, we also get it from who we are as people, from what we’re good at it and from a range of different sources. So this one study took this idea that what if we affirm people in another aspect of their identity and maybe that’ll make them less biased towards the science that will threaten their political identity.
So what role do the media play in all of this?
The media play a huge role in this because they are the main sources of science information for people, so people get their information from the mainstream media in a big way. The internet is growing as a source of information, but the mainstream media are still the main place. The way the mainstream media have often handled climate change is they’ve put climate scientists on one side and climate sceptics on the other side and the public have come away with the impression of a 50/50 debate. This is greatly amplifying the position of the climate sceptics, because in the scientific community they only represent about 3 per cent of climate scientists. Climate scientists who accept the scientific consensus are about 97 per cent.
The way the media have portrayed this debate has really given the public the wrong idea about the level of agreement in the climate science community. This is actually quite important because perception of consensus actually leads to support for climate policy. In other words, when people understand that the climate scientists agree, then they’re more likely to support climate action. So the fact that the media are portraying this false balance is hurting public support for climate action.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
One of the themes that I’ve been saying a lot lately is just how important it is to communicate to the public the level of agreement among climate scientists. I’ve been capturing data on this for my own research that the Australian public thinks there’s roughly a 50/50 debate among climate scientists. The fact that there’s such a big gap between what the public think and the reality has a big influence on public support for climate policy.
For me, one of the biggest things we need to do as climate communicators is just clearly communicate the scientific consensus. And that’s not the magic bullet, there’s a lot more that we need to do than that but just to remove that misperception would remove a big roadblock to climate action.
John Cook is one of the main contributors to The Consensus Project, a comprehensive analysis of 21 years worth of peer-reviewed papers on “global warming” or “global climate change”