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Elections, storms, and campaigns: none have changed public opinion on climate change

A new Pew survey shows just how stable the partisan climate divide is.

balance (Shutterstock)

Pew Research is out with a big new survey on public attitudes toward climate change. It contains disturbingly little that’s new.

Instead, it found exactly what pollsters have been finding for decades: Public opinion on climate change is split along partisan lines.

And it’s not just about whether climate change is happening. "Political differences over climate issues extend across a host of beliefs about the expected effects of climate change, actions that can address changes to the Earth’s climate, and trust and credibility in the work of climate scientists," Pew says in the new report. "People on the ideological ends of either party, that is liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, see the world through vastly different lenses across all of these judgments."

Here’s a sample, just to pick one question out of dozens. It’s about whether climate change will cause "rising sea levels that erode shore lines."

sea level question (Pew)

Those little dots are, from left to right, conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans, moderate Dems, and liberal Dems.

Sixteen percent of conservative Rs believe climate change will raise sea levels. Sixty-seven percent of liberal Democrats do.

Pick virtually any question about climate and the spread of opinion is roughly the same. Here’s how the public assesses the media’s performance in reporting on climate change:

partisan divide on media (Pew)

From question to question, the gap between the sides gets slightly narrower or wider, but across the board, the partisan divide remains.

That divide has been growing since the late 1990s, especially since 2008. Climate change has been inexorably swept up in the broader wave of political polarization that has washed over the country.

It has been very, very difficult for climate campaigners to accept this. They believe — instinctively, desperately — that public opinion on climate change ought to have something to do with climate change. The facts ought to make a difference. The broad scientific consensus, the mounting toll of severe weather, and years of communications and education campaigns by climate groups and public officials ought to make a difference.

It doesn’t really seem like they have, though. This is Pew’s most depressing graph:

climate opinion over time (Pew)

Ten years of new science, new storms and floods, and new social movements don’t seem to have moved the needle on the very basic question of whether humans are heating up the atmosphere.

And here’s the second most depressing graph, which is about the public’s awareness of the scientific consensus on climate change:

opinion on scientific consensus (Pew)

Fewer than a third of Americans realize that climate scientists agree almost unanimously on anthropogenic climate change. You can pound the table about how this is a failure of democracy, of media, of political elites — I’ve done my share of that over the years — but it doesn’t change the facts. Opinion on climate change, it seems, is just as stuck and intractable as the larger partisan divide.

Scientific literacy does not shrink the partisan gap on climate

We’ve known for a while that more scientific knowledge does not budge the opinions of climate doubters on the right. Pew’s results reinforce that.

Pew has an elaborate method of testing for scientific literacy, which you can read about in the report (p. 82). What’s interesting is how it interacts with climate opinions. Increased scientific literacy does seem to increase acknowledgement of climate change among Democrats, but it does not have the same effect on Republicans.

partisan knowledge effects (Pew)

In fact, it is among those with greatest scientific literacy that the divide in climate opinion is widest.

It just goes to show that most people, most of the time, reason more like lawyers than like scientists. They don’t go in free of preconceptions, allowing the evidence to lead them to a conclusion. They go in with conclusions and use evidence to build a case. Greater scientific literacy is just a means to building a better case.

This is known as "motivated reasoning," and it is by no means confined to one side of the political spectrum. It is the rule rather than the exception for our fallen species, I’m afraid.

If climate beliefs are more about tribal ties than scientific literacy and the weight of evidence, then changing Republican climate skepticism is not primarily going to be about piling on more evidence.

Tribal beliefs can only be changed tribally

How can public opinion be changed? This post from Jerry Taylor summarizes the political science consensus. Two key facts:

One, most people have no coherent ideology and no firm opinions on "issues," as they are defined in politics.

Two, partially as a consequence, "elite discourse is the most important driver of public opinion."

Another way of putting this is that most people will care about what they see respected members of their tribes caring about. People take cues from leaders and media they view as socially aligned. If an issue becomes salient (or not) among tribal elites, the tribe will follow suit.

If leaders in the Republican Party and right-wing media turned on a dime and accepted climate change, it wouldn’t take long for Republican voters to follow suit. Most people just don’t have particularly deep issue attachments. They have tribal attachments.

In short, to change how Republicans view climate change, you gotta change how Republican elites treat it. Nothing else will work.

Anybody know how to change the way Republican elites think? Or who even counts as Republican elites these days? Sigh.

And yet! Everyone loves renewable energy

So that this post is not a complete downer, here’s a bit of hopeful news. There is one point of agreement, even across deep partisan divisions. It’s one I’ve written about many times. To wit:

Everyone loves renewable energy.

As Pew notes, while climate change and fossil fuels have gotten sucked into the partisan vortex, "strong majorities of all political groups support more solar and wind production."

strong public support for wind and solar (Pew)

Poll after poll after poll has found this, for many years, and I remain at a loss to fully explain it. Yes, renewables are spread across red and purple states too; yes, renewables are big business now; yes, they’ve gotten cheaper; yes, no one likes pollution.

Still, all of that seems to underdetermine the sheer fervor with which Americans support renewables. There’s something going on at a deeper level.

Whatever it is, it’s sitting right there for any politician who might want to exploit it. Maybe, if renewables can keep their halo while they scale up, they might even serve as a bank-shot method of changing public opinion on climate change. Stranger things have happened.

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