It’s not for lack of evidence that people still reject the notion of anthropogenic climate change. According to a new meta-analysis by Australian researchers, one’s political affiliation has a strong effect on whether they trust climate scientists.
The study, published today in Nature Climate Change, has provided new clues to climate communication scientists whose work involves overcoming the obstacle of climate change denial.
“People who intend to vote for more liberal political parties are more likely to believe in climate change than those who align themselves with relatively conservative political parties,” write the authors of the study from University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology.
While it’s not a shocking result, there are valuable insights to be gained from this meta-analysis, which the authors claim is first of its kind.
“It’s been long known that personal politics is one of the strongest influencers of beliefs about climate change,” says John Cook, Climate Communication Research Fellow at The University of Queensland, who wasn’t involved in the research.
“But this study identifies that political affiliation has a significantly stronger effect than political ideology, which indicates that social identification is an important piece of the puzzle.”
In this case, political ideology refers to where people sit on the scale from liberal to conservative, regardless of who they say they’re going to vote for.
A birds-eye view of the data
To find out the underlying role of ideology when it comes to climate change belief, the study looked at data from 171 studies and 25 polls across 56 nations, performing a total of 27 meta-analyses.
“It's the equivalent of mashing the effects together to try and get a bird's eye view of what the psychological make-up is," says Professor Matthew Hornsey, lead author of the study.
“Such an analysis draws on the energies of hundreds of individual climate researchers, but in a way that distils simple and digestible insights for academics, practitioners and policy makers,” the authors write.
The researchers identified seven demographic variables, including gender, race, age, and political affiliation. They also looked at 13 psychological variables - such as trust in scientists, individualistic cultural values, environmental cues and others, as well as seven variables “widely considered to be downstream consequences of climate change belief,” such as pro-environmental behaviour.
“One message from the data is that traditional societal faultlines of gender, age, sex, race, and income seem to be of little relevance in determining levels of climate change scepticism,” the authors note in the paper.
Changing minds with jiu-jitsu
"I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all model for how to communicate climate science," says Hornsey.
The researchers suggest that instead of focusing on who rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, it’s more important to focus on the why - the psychological factors involved.
Importantly, just throwing more scientific evidence at the person isn't going to work.
"Science is inherently sceptical, and scientists are often very keen to tear down established movements and come up with new ideas, so it's very difficult to get consensus about anything in science."
"So, when I hear that 97 per cent of climate scientists believe that humans are causing climate change, that's good enough for me," says Hornsey. "But many people don't have that implicit trust in the scientific method."
"They just don't want to believe [in climate change], so you try to find out why not, and then work with their ideologies rather than to compete with them. It's kind-of like jiu-jitsu, where you work with people's momentum."