Republicans started to distrust climate science in the 1990s — and it may be due to Democrat messages

Climate and communication scientists alike have struggled with a sizable portion of the American public which rejects climate science, even as the evidence becomes clearer and clearer. Now, a new study finds that supporters of the Republican Party have become much more skeptical of climate change science after the 1990s. According to the researchers, it’s not just Republican elites that drive this — Democratic messages in support of climate action also polarize Republican members.

Banksy did this. The graffiti, I mean — as for climate change, we’re all doing it.

There are probably thousands of books and articles about why climate science is so strongly opposed by a substantial part of the population (especially in the US). Rivers of ink have poured addressing the causes of this refusal, from political polarization and cognitive dissonance to the nefarious influence from energy companies. But the political component of the climate change discussion is more prevalent than ever.

In the US, Republicans are far more likely to deny climate change than Democrats, and this trend has been greatly exacerbated by President Trump, who has become a loudspeaker for climate deniers. But in an ironic twist of fate, it turns out that Republican supporters often take their climate cues from Democrat leaders. At least that’s the conclusion of a newly published study.

“This article argues that out-group cues from Democratic elites caused a backlash that resulted in greater climate skepticism,” the authors write.

“We find that the most consistent factor that predicts aggregate patterns of climate skepticism in the public, and among Republican supporters specifically, are cues from Democratic party elites. We find that Democratic elite cues lead, rather than follow, public opinion on this topic.”

Climate skepticism among Republican supporters. Image credits: Merkley & Stecula.

In order to reach this conclusion, the authors surveyed a sample of 3,000 Americans through Amazon Mechanical Turk and analyzed the position of both party elites and public opinion, looking at both correlation and causation. They found that Republican voters are very receptive to cues from both parties’ elites: when Republican elites support a position, Republican voters also follow; when Democrats support a position, Republicans do the absolute opposite.

Notably, Democrat voters didn’t do the same thing, but there may be a catch.

“We did not find a consistently similar effect among Democratic Party supporters, though we must sound a word of caution on this latter point. It is possible that these results were hampered by a ceiling effect – Democratic supporters are already very supportive of the climate change consensus, so it is possible that our treatments could not move the needle any further.”

In short, the story behind climate change polarization is similar to many other issues of the day: members of the public were exposed to a large volume of partisan messages and formed their opinions accordingly — not necessarily based on the elites of the party they support, but (especially in the case of Republicans) in opposition to the other party. It’s a pervasive problem that seems inherent to a two-party system, where everything can become polarized.

We’ve seen it recently with something as innocuous as face masks — a simple epidemiological line of defense was thoroughly politicized, and Americans are paying a heavy price for this. Similarly, climate science is, by definition, a scientific matter — yet it’s been made into a very political issue in the US.

Researchers end the study by suggesting that with all the effort spent finding strategies to mobilize support for climate consensus, we should focus a bit more on understanding the behavior and motivation of party elites, and try to mobilize them to accept the scientific consensus.

At the end of the day, whether it’s a virus or climate change, it will affect us regardless of our political beliefs. We’d be wise to move past such petty squabbles.

The study has been published in the British Journal of Political Science.

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