Climate change divide is about group identity, not politics

Ninety-seven percent of scientific papers about climate change agree that it is human in origin. Yet the proportion of the US public that shares that belief is staggeringly low. According to one survey, it’s less than half. We were reminded just this past week that while some so-called “deniers” have come around to face the reality of climate change itself, many still deny our species’ culpability.

From where does this apparent division between “believers” and “deniers” come? Various researchers have argued that it could reflect socioeconomic divides, or differences in moral systems, political orientations, or ideologies. Others have called out deniers for their lack of knowledge or scientific literacy, or highlighted the role of personal experience in the matter. Still others blame lobbyists for whom there are economic or political stakes, and yet others say that the divide stems from failures in science communication.

But Monash University social scientist Ana-Maria Bliuc and colleagues have a different opinion. Writing this week in Nature Climate Change, they suggest that the climate change divide it “itself an intergroup conflict.” They compare the divide over climate change to other social conflicts, like those over abortion, marriage equality, gender equality, US civil rights, and others. Like those conflicts, Bliuc points out that the climate change debate is not reducible to simple partisan lines. “In relation to abortion, for example, a Republican, male Catholic is more likely to be pro-Life than pro-Choice,” she explains, “but the conflict between pro-Life and pro-Choice supporters is not a conflict between Republicans and Democrats, men and women, or between Catholics and persons with other religious beliefs. Rather, the key defining feature of the pro-Life (or pro-Choice) position is a shared opinion, and such opinions provide the psychological basis for the intergroup conflict.”

To see if they were right, the researchers distributed a survey online and yielded data from 120 US-based climate change sceptics and 328 US-based believers. The two groups were statistically similar in terms of age, education, employment and income. Among their findings was one important one: political party affiliation was a predictor for those in the believer group, but not for the deniers. In other words, most believers could reliably be categorized as Democrats, but skeptics or deniers could not be reliably classified as Republicans. In addition, the researchers found that believers were invested in their own group identity. They saw other believers as members of their own social “ingroup” and skeptics/deniers as “other” or as members of a social “outgroup.” Believers did not simply adhere to a particular side in a scientific debate; they also defined themselves as hostile to those who did not believe as they did. Likewise, deniers understood their identity, in part, in relation to their anger towards believers.

According to the researchers, this means that “antagonizing sceptics and increasing their anger towards their opponents is likely to rebound by making them more committed to take contrary action.” The psychological nature of the climate change divide also suggests – though this is perhaps something we already knew or suspected – that communication and education strategies alone are insufficient to convert a denier into a believer.

Strategies for increasing acceptance of the human origin for climate change therefore has to take a very different approach, one that is focused on intergroup relations rather than (or at least, in addition to) on scientific literacy. “The underlying message of the results is that believers and sceptics are united,” writes Bliuc, “but only insofar as they are united in opposition to each other.” Whether that’s the case in other parts of the world as well remains to be seen. – Jason G. Goldman | 04 February 2015

Source: Ana-Maria Bliuc, Craig McGarty, Emma F. Thomas, Girish Lala, Mariette Berndsen & RoseAnne Misajon (2015). Public division about climate change rooted in conflicting socio-political identities, Nature Climate Change, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2507

Header image: shutterstock.com

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