Climate Change Emerging as Election Issue
April 28, 2016
New polling from Yale and George Mason University. Not good news for science denying politicians.
As the election year develops, we can also expect more headline making extreme events that will make a repetitive drumbeat for campaign messages. Should be interesting, and I hope to take part.
A new public opinion survey finds that “Americans across political lines, except conservative Republicans, would support a presidential candidate who strongly supports taking action to reduce global warming.”
The survey of 1,004 registered voters by the Climate Change Communication programs at Yale and George Mason University yielded a number of important findings consistent with earlier polling this year by Gallup.
The new survey found a growing number of registered voters understand global warming is happening: “Three in four (73%, up 7 points since Spring 2014) now think it is happening. Large majorities of Democrats — liberal (95%) and moderate/conservative (80%) — think it is happening, as do three in four Independents (74%, up 15 points since Spring 2014) and the majority of liberal/moderate Republicans (71%, up 10 points).”
Unfortunately for the GOP, while conservative Republicans generally indicate they’re more likely to vote for this kind of climate-science-denying candidate (+10 percentage points), “Democrats, Independents and liberal/moderate Republicans are much less likely to vote” for such a candidate by -63, -31, and -24 percentage points respectively.
So the right-wing denial machine has put the GOP in a box. Candidates running for the Republican nomination may feel there is a benefit to embracing climate denial if they want to “win the conservative vote” — but such candidates will suffer with every other voter group, particularly if they are running against someone who embraces climate action.
That all assumes, of course, that progressive candidates choose to make this issue one of their priorities in their messaging and advertising in the coming campaign. After all, it is unlikely conservatives will be the ones to bring the issue up, and it appears equally unlikely the media is going to bring the issue up in any serious fashion.
It also assumes that the progressive candidate has a winning message on climate change, which hasn’t always been the case. But, as we reported two weeks ago, science and public opinion research have identified winning climate messages. These include “The overwhelming majority of climate scientists — over 97 percent — understand that humans are the primary cause of climate change” and “We have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that’s not polluted and damaged by carbon pollution.”
A 2013 paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues investigated the links between ideology and science denial. The study similarly found no evidence of symmetrical science denial between liberals and conservatives on different issues. The authors concluded that conspiratorial thinking and free market support – both prevalent on the political right – were most strongly related to science denial:
Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested.
The study found that libertarian objections to government intrusion arising from mandatory vaccination programs explained the prevalence of anti-vaccine views among conservatives. They also found that those on the liberal side of the spectrum are more likely to distrust the pharmaceutical industry, and thus also oppose vaccinations, but as borne out by the YouGov poll data, this appears to be a smaller effect. On GMOs, the Lewandowsky study found no link between trust in science and ideology, again, consistent with the latest polling data.
Conservative trust in science has steadily declined
The YouGov poll also asked respondents “Generally speaking, how much trust do you have that what scientists say is accurate and reliable?”. There was little difference between various ethnicities, ages, geographical regions, or genders. However, Democrats were far more likely to trust scientists than Republicans, with Independents falling in the middle, but closer to Republicans.
These results are consistent with a 2012 paper by Gordon Gauchat, which found:
public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church.
This rising distrust of science is particularly high among higher-educated conservatives, in what’s been coined the “smart idiot” effect. Essentially, on complicated scientific subjects like climate change, more highly-educated ideologically-biased individuals possess more tools to fool themselves into denying the science and rejecting the conclusions of experts.
Chris Mooney has attributed these trends to the growth of the ‘religious right’ and other changes in the Republican Party:
Clearly, The Republican War on Science’s politicization thesis is being strongly validated—a thesis that attributes the problem to the growth of a modern conservative movement, its need to appease its core interest groups and constituencies (corporate America, conservative Christians), its need to have its own alternative expertise and journalism (think tanks, Fox, Limbaugh), and so on … as the “New Right” emerged in the U.S. in the wake of the cultural battles of the 1960s and 1970s, it mobilized strong forces of authoritarianism–e.g., psychological rigidity and closed-mindedness.
Indeed, authoritarians favor Donald Trump, whose supporters have considerable overlap with climate science denial. Robert Brulle’s research into the ‘dark money’ funding climate denial also helps explain the problem. The Republican Party has become increasingly dependent upon corporate funding and support, which is heavily skewed in the direction of climate denial. The near-total abandonment of party leadership on the climate issue has sent a signal to Republican voters – climate change isn’t a concern, and anyone saying otherwise is part of the hoax.
The growth of this anti-science strain of the Republican Party thus seems to stem from multiple sources: increased party reliance on the religious right and corporate interests, and the growth of a right-wing media echo chamber that feeds anti-scienceconspiratorial thinking.
However, there is good news. For one, climate denial is largely limited to a small and dwindling group of old, white, male conservatives; hence, it’s not a tenable long-term position for the Republican Party. Like opposition to gay marriage, science denial is a position that will increasingly alienate young voters in particular, who will bear the brunt of the consequences of climate inaction.