Last updated May 17, 2018 at 12:00 pm
Political climate change scepticism strongest in the US, with Australia second out of 25 countries.
“It wasn’t a big surprise” says Matthew Hornsey from the University of Queensland, author of a new study published in Nature Climate Change looking at the relationship between people’s ideology and belief in climate change.
There’s already evidence to support the idea that people who identify more with conservative ideologies are more likely to be sceptical about human caused climate change.
But most of these studies have been carried out in the US, the textbook example of political polarisation on the issue. Matthew and his colleagues wanted to know whether this holds up around the world. So they surveyed 5,323 people from 25 countries to measure their ideology along conservative vs liberal political views, and whether or not they subscribe to conspiratorial thinking.
Belief in climate change isn’t inherently linked to political ideology
The results showed that of the 25 countries measured, across five different indicators of ideology, the correlation was the strongest in the US, which was the only one where the correlation was significant across all indicators.
And while the US stood on its own in terms of the strongest effect, Australia came in second, along with other countries with significant fossil fuel industries like Canada and Brazil.
But for around three quarters of the countries in the study there was no significant correlation between indicators of ideology and climate scepticism. That is, knowing someone’s political views does not mean that you’d be able to predict their belief in climate change.
“The glass half empty approach is to bemoan the notion that attitude toward climate change should be political at all, and to grieve the fact that we live in a world where vested interests can engage in campaigns of misinformation designed to plant seeds of doubt about whether the science is settled,” says Matthew.
“But the glass half full approach is to look at the data and see that in the vast majority of countries there’s no clear link between political conservatism and climate change beliefs. In those countries at least, I feel optimistic that the population would be able to appraise the science in a reasonably objective way, untainted by their political worldviews.”
Their research shows that on a global scale, there’s nothing inherently about political conservatism that turns people into climate deniers, the link only emerges where responding to climate change could mean a big hit to a fossil fuel economy.
“When the vested interests are high (in terms of the fossil fuel industry, for example) then there is more of a motivation for big business to engage in an organized campaign of misinformation around climate change, a campaign that is facilitated by conservative media, politicians and think tanks. Australia is very fossil fuel reliant – we have among the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world – and so this is exactly the sort of political climate where a campaign of misinformation might take hold.”
So are we on track to the level of polarisation you see in the US?
“I don’t have direct data to speak to that,” says Matthew, “But I’m an Australian myself, and it’s hard not to notice that the Australian political scene under the Abbott era had become very politically polarised around climate change.”
“You could argue that climate change was implicated in the removal of two prime ministers … Abbott was very skilled at using climate change to drive a wedge between the government and the voters. Under Turnbull, the rhetoric has not been anywhere near as strong on this front. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the link between conservatism and skepticism was weaker now than it was a few years ago. People take their cues from their leaders.”
How should this change the way we talk about climate change?
Next on the research agenda for Matthew and his colleagues is how to best frame climate change messages in ways that cut through ideological resistance and bring conservatives on board rather than alienating them.
“I call it jiu-jitsu pursuasian techniques,” he says.
“There’s already evidence that if you frame climate change mitigation as something that’s sympathetic to free markets, or as a patriotic act designed to maintain energy security, or as a chance to generate green technologies, then conservatives are less likely to resist the science.”