Climate skepticism has nothing to do with science — and everything to do with culture and politics, one study reveals.


Seen at the People’s Climate March in 2017, in Washington DC.
Image via Wikimedia.

One thing that’s really strange about the US to outsiders is how neatly divided the climate change debate seems to be across political cohorts: conservatives say it’s a Chinese hoax, liberals argue that it’s real. For the rest of us (scientists and laymen both), there’s hardly a debate at all — climate change is happening, and we’re the cause. It’s especially striking since the US doesn’t have a monopoly on conservatives, but it does seem to hold one over climate-change-denying conservatives.

So what gives?

Wanting to get to the bottom of things, a team from the University of Queensland in Australia surveyed over 5,000 people in 25 countries. Respondents were asked to answer several questions that placed them on four different political scales: left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, individualist vs. communitarian, and hierarchical vs. egalitarian. Other questions in the survey probed into their views on conspiracy theories in order to test if conspirationist thinking was linked to the idea that climate change is a hoax.

The study did indeed reveal that the US is in a category of its own with regards to climate change: it is the only country in the world with a strong, statistically significant correlation between all four political scales and opinion on climate. In other words, every group on the political spectrum has its own view on the subject, and identifying with a political group will be a strong predictor of the views you hold on climate change — but only if you’re an American. The US also showed a statistically significant correlation between climate views and conspiracy theories– although it’s not unique in this regard: a few other countries, for example Singapore, showed similar correlations.

The closest similarities to the US that the team could find were Australia and Canada. They too showed statistically significant correlations between political ideology and opinions on climate, but these were much weaker and only held true for three of the four political scales investigated. Brazil showed correlation for two of the four scales. The UK, although boasting its own climate-skeptics, didn’t have a single statistically significant correlation.


Correlations between the different parameters and views on climate change.
Image credits Hornsey et al., 2018 / Nature Climate Change

One thing the US, Australia, Canada, and Brazil have in common, the team notes, is that they are among the highest per capita greenhouse emitters in the world. They admit that it could be a simple coincidence, but also point out that countries who use the most fossil fuels (so have the highest emissions) per capita also stand to lose the most should they acknowledge the climate change reality.

“It may be that per capita carbon emissions is a proxy for vested interests around climate change, both collectively (in terms of the fossil fuel industry’s investment in that country) and individually (in terms of the perceived sacrifices and changes that citizens feel they need to make to live a low-carbon lifestyle),” the team writes.

What the team proposes is that climate skepticism is actually a cultural phenomenon, not something inherent in political ideology. If cultural leaders promote an idea long enough, their cultural group picks up on it and embeds it in the group’s mentality and identity — it becomes part of what it means to belong to that group. If nobody influential enough is there to promote these ideas, they simply don’t catch on — which is what happened with most other scientific debates in America.

The team considers this to be good news. There are few countries where climate science and political identities are merged together — the US is an exception, rather than the rule. It’s not an ideal scenario, with the US being one of the largest global emitters, as well as an economic and technological powerhouse, but at least it means that, in other places around the world, people are willing to do something to fix climate change no matter where they stand on politics.

The paper “Relationships among conspiratorial beliefs, conservatism and climate scepticism across nations” has been published in the journal Nature.

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