Episode 3: Polarized Opinion on Climate Change and Messages that Move Conservatives
Episode 3 of the Political Research Digest explores new research by Megan Mullin of Duke University on climate polarization, the factors that influence climate opinion, and how to manage the partisan divide. Host Matt Grossmann also talks to Ohio State University’s Graham Dixon about a new experiment showing that highlighting free-market ideas alleviates conservative skepticism about climate change.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, polarized public opinion on climate change and what messages move conservatives. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Extreme weather and extreme politics may not go well together as the planet warms and disasters threaten, public opinion on climate science and solutions is polarizing fast. A new study, “Climate Change and U.S. Public Opinion,” published in the Annual Review of Political Science, finds opinions divided along partisan lines, following the polarization of American politics. Today I’ll talk to one of the authors, Megan Mullin of Duke University about the many factors affecting opinion and what might change it. Can any messages reduce conservative resistance to climate action?
Another new study finds a message that might work. Today I’ll also talk to Graham Dixon of Ohio State University about a study he co-authored in Scientific Communication called “Improving Climate Change Acceptance Among U.S. Conservatives Through Value Based Message Targeting.”
It argues that highlighting potential free market solutions to climate changes causes conservatives to be more accepting. President Trump recently announced a withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and abandoned the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Despite increasing scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, the parties are growing increasingly divided. Most researchers have found that conservative Republicans are less accepting of climate science and assume that their dismissal of the science makes them opposed to climate action.
Megan Mullin told me that this conventional wisdom has it backwards.
Mullin: What the literature shows is that the conventional wisdom gets the causal arrow backwards that there isn’t some sort of rational decision making about the quality of the science that then contributes to opinions. There are opinions that are mostly shaped by political messages and political forces and perhaps economic interests and policy preferences that then go back and shape your beliefs.
Grossmann: Her new review co-authored with Patrick Egan found that rather than increasing public consensus, the last 25 years have seen increasing polarization.
Mullin: I would say there are two big punchlines in what we found. Why is over the course of that 25 years although there is a really significant rise in public awareness about climate change, public familiarity with the phrase and the issue, there really is not very much increase in true understanding of the issue or in concern. In the aggregate we really see stable opinion over time. That’s in the aggregate. The other big finding is dramatic partisan polarization on the issue. That exists everywhere in American politics. We know that, but it is striking in the case of climate change because when this problem emerged on the public agenda there was no difference between Democrats and Republicans in their response to this issue. This was at a time when there was little difference, little partisan difference in attitudes about environment generally. Since that time it has become a severely polarized issue.
Grossmann: They found that even Democrats who believe it’s a problem don’t prioritize the issue.
Mullin: It doesn’t occupy a high level of priority on the Democratic agenda. Activists are trying to change that, but so far it hasn’t been a very prevalent issue.
Grossmann: Mullin suggests that means climate activists can’t rise above the partisan fray.
Mullin: Very often the activists who are most engaged in this issue are trying to work outside of partisan mechanisms and circumvent the party when I think a good avenue would be within the party.
Grossmann: Activists hoping for a repeat of 1970s era public consensus on environmental policy are going to be disappointed.
Mullin: Climate change is not separate from larger political forces in the United States right now. It is part of this larger phenomenon of polarization and trying to win people over who are currently skeptical about climate change or who are adverse to the kind of traditional solutions we might have to this problem, actually could potentially backlash right. It’s not a fruitful way to spend your time.
There seems to be a belief among many in the sort of political community that we will be able to enact national climate policy through kind of a similar process as what we saw in the early 1970s to what led to a lot of our major environmental legislation in the United States. This was a widespread sort of grassroots movement, highlighted by a handful of focusing events to grab people’s attention and lead to a bipartisan effort to create climate policy. I don’t see anything in my reading of the literature about climate change opinion and the literature about American politics right now that leads me to think that could happen.
Grossmann: Mullin and Egan do find that warmer temperatures make people more accepting of climate change but only temporarily.
Mullin: We’ve shown in our research that people’s experiences with warmer temperatures influence their response on survey questions. If you’re asked whether you believe the evidence exists for climate change and the temperatures in your community have been warmer than normal, right before the interview you are more likely to say “yes.” If the temperatures have been cool then you’re less likely to say that you believe the evidence for climate change.
That’s of course a short-lived experience because temperatures are always changing.
Grossmann: So far, most Americans are actually seeing better weather from climate change.
Mullin: For the vast majority of Americans the weather has actually improved, it’s become closer to what we like for weather because winters have warmed substantially but we haven’t been paying the price in hotter and more humid summers.
Grossmann: Is there anything that could move Republican opinion on climate action? Mullin sees some new research suggesting it might help to have the policy debate before the science debate.
Mullin: There’s some good research suggesting that really what’s been going on with Republicans is an aversion to the solutions that would be necessary to address this really large scale global issue. This aversion to solution is actually feeding back into beliefs about the problem itself, right, feeding back into the nihilism we don’t need to take on these solutions if the problem doesn’t even exist.
Grossmann: I spoke to Graham Dixon, co author of a new study of this type, swaying climate opinion by recognizing its ideological roots.
Dixon: You really have to address the core values that impact their skepticism of climate change which would be free market beliefs. You have to really go back to what are the main causes of conservative skepticism in climate change.
Grossmann: Dixon told me the traditional message, emphasizing scientific consensus does not work.
Dixon: Indicating a scientific consensus around climate change didn’t really seem to matter all that much in improving conservative’s beliefs about climate change. That’s a common tactic that’s been used in recent years to try to improve climate skeptics’ awareness as well as the belief about climate change.
Grossmann: Instead, it’s better to address the policy threats directly.
Dixon: If you frame a message around the free market solutions to climate change, we found that this possibly can improve conservative beliefs about climate change.
Grossmann: The new study used survey experiments to test the most convincing arguments.
Dixon: We ended up doing a survey experiment that had different messages that varied and what we’re seeing emphasized whether it’s a certain value like free market values or religious values or whether it discussed the science and the consensus of climate change.
Grossmann: A religious message didn’t help.
Dixon: Climate change isn’t seen as a threat to religious values, at least at the policy, the outcomes of the science of climate change. The threats are all based on free market sort of enterprise that there will be greater government control through regulation or maybe the government will have certain incentives that favor certain technologies over others.
Grossmann: It’s not lack of scientific knowledge that matters most.
Dixon: I think we’ve seen through a lot of research that people’s skepticism in scientific issues particularly those that are highly politicized are not the product of one’s lack of scientific knowledge…it’s even something deeper than that. It’s about some of the values in the case of climate change…it’s representing political values.
Grossmann: We’ve been trying to debate the science of the problem first, but we need to get to the policy.
Dixon: Conservative skepticism of climate change is largely a product of perceived threats that the policy surrounding climate change posed to conservative values rather than the actual science itself.
I think the debate has certainly centered around the science, which I think is kind of the easier debate to have. You can debate on whether the science is true or you can debate on the substantive policy issues and unfortunately, we’re focusing more on the debate of the science rather than the policy.
Grossmann: There’s a problem. Messages that help with conservatives might hurt with liberals. Dixon didn’t find any message that worked better for everyone.
Dixon: That certainly points to a potential backfiring effect for issues that are consonant to liberals like climate change that if you find any way to highlight values that are dissonant to them even though the topic is rather consonant, maybe it will backfire to them. That’s something to look out for in future research.
Grossmann: Mullin also saw a polarized future.
Mullin: There is no sign now that things are changing. We are seeing in the aggregate in 2016 and 2017 we actually are seeing pretty substantial increases in concern about the environment generally and climate change in particular. That movement’s coming all from democrats. We’re not seeing any change in the larger pattern of polarization.
Grossmann: Given the bleak outlook, what can political professionals learn from this research? Dixon told me they should skip right to key barriers and address them.
Dixon: Really, the best approach to communicating science to a skeptical audience is particularly issues that are highly polarized and politicized. It’s best not to just give people numbers and to educate them because people’s skepticism is largely not due to their lack of an understanding on the topic. It’s usually due to their values, in the case of climate change issues these political values, these perceived threats to the free market.
I think that the most important thing is instead of using persuasion, is to consider engagement and think about the core values that impact people’s skepticism behind scientific issues. To think about ways of understanding why people become skeptical on these issues.
Grossmann: Mullin suggested two routes to influence. If you want to sway the public, she said start with policies that hide the costs.
Mullin: Taking on policies where the costs are not as readily transparent to voters, where it’s a model like a subsidy, where of course we’re all paying for it eventually but those payments aren’t so clear, those are more politically popular solutions.
Grossmann: Activists could also give up on the public messaging and just target elites directly.
Mullin: There’s an assumption in a lot of the literature about climate change opinion that public opinion needs to be the driving force for policy change. I don’t know that that’s true.
Grossmann: There’s a lot that remains to be learned. Mullin’s interest is in people’s willingness to adapt to climate change even if they dismiss it.
Mullin: We’re trying to do is reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the motivation for that from a policy argument point of view means that you have to talk about climate change. If you’re talking about adaptation, if you’re talking about becoming more resilient to the effects of climate change, you don’t even really need to talk about climate change, right? You can talk about becoming more resilient to hurricanes and to sea level rise and to periods of drought. There’s growing evidence that some good adaption activity is underway in communities that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see it based on the patterns of polarization.
Grossmann: Dixon says we should learn from conservatives who have accepted climate science.
Dixon: A number of political opinion polls the majority of self described conservatives in the US are skeptical of climate change in some capacity whether they don’t believe it’s happening at all or they don’t believe that human activity is contributing to it. Besides that, there are about 29 percent of conservatives at least from a recent Pew research poll that do believe in anthropogenic climate change. I’m curious as to why these individuals believe that and whether there is a certain interaction they’ve had, factors that play a role in their beliefs that could inform on future messaging strategies.
Grossmann: I hope you enjoy the new podcast; thanks to Megan Mullin and Graham Dixon for joining me. Political Research Digest is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. Join us next time to find out how intra-party organizations in Congress like the House Freedom Caucus rise to power.