Dozens of surveys and studies have attempted to figure out which factors most heavily influence individuals’ beliefs about climate change and their support for climate-friendly policies. But because there have been so many published recently, scientists argue that it’s been difficult to keep up with the overall trends these studies have been revealing.
Now, some clarity is being offered in the form of a new analysis published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, which reviews all the existing literature on climate change beliefs and pulls out the broad conclusions that can be drawn from all the combined research. The findings highlight two major ideas about the public’s feelings on climate change. First, the analysis suggests that out of all the personal characteristics examined by scientists so far, political affiliations, worldviews and values were the most significant predictors of a person’s beliefs about climate change. Second — and perhaps somewhat disheartening — a person’s belief in climate change doesn’t necessarily translate into big support for climate-friendly action.
“There are quite a few studies out there on the psychology of skepticism, but the insights are scattered across so many bitsy data sets and so many different disciplines it was hard to see the forest for the trees,” said the new paper’s lead author Matthew Hornsey, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Australia. “The meta-analysis was a chance to step back and to get that birds-eye view. It’s like a Monet painting – the more you step back, the more it makes sense.”
The analysis included nearly 200 previous polls and studies conducted in 57 countries around the world. It examined the influence of a variety of different variables, including demographic characteristics like age, sex and education; psychological variables, such as people’s “green identity,” or their overall level of concern about the environment; and what the authors refer to as the “downstream consequences of climate change belief,” or what sorts of concrete environmental policies people support.
The findings may challenge certain stereotypes often accepted by the general public about who does and does not believe in anthropogenic climate change, said Hornsey — two major ones in particular. First, he said, there’s a widely held belief that climate doubters are less educated. But while there’s a small tendency for skeptics to have lower levels of education or less climate-specific knowledge, he said that the relationship isn’t particularly strong.
“Another idea about skeptics is that they’re all older white men,” Hornsey said. “Again, there’s a small kernel of truth here – people higher in skepticism are more likely to be old, white and male – but the effects are so tiny you have to squint to see them. What really popped was people’s ideologies, political values, worldviews.”
Indeed, political affiliation was the demographic variable most strongly correlated with people’s beliefs about climate change, with people who vote for more liberal political parties being more inclined to believe in climate change. Notably, political ideology — that is, a person’s overall general set of political beliefs along a continuous scale (a related, but different measure than the party a person intends to vote for) — was less of a predictor, although still a significant factor. “This suggests that acceptance of climate change is more aligned to specific identification with political parties than to underlying political ideologies,” the authors wrote in the paper.
It’s a finding that was particularly interesting to sociology professor Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University. Dunlap was not involved with the new meta-analysis, but his research on climate change beliefs was included in the study. “I think this is a function of covering studies in a number of countries,” Dunlap said, noting that his research focusing on just the United States has found ideology to have a significance on par with party affiliation.
The most significant psychological variable — and indeed, the strongest predictor out of all the variables together — was a construct known as the New Ecological Paradigm, or NEP. This is a scale used to essentially measure people’s levels of environmental concern. It does not deal specifically with climate change, as the authors point out — but it is a strong predictor of people’s belief in global warming.
The paradigm, in fact, was developed by Dunlap and his colleagues. “The NEP scale is designed to measure an ecological worldview,” Dunlap noted. “So it’s not surprising that people who endorse such a worldview express very high concern about climate change.”
Belief in the trustworthiness of scientists and the idea that there’s a scientific consensus surrounding climate change were also strong predictors of a person’s belief in climate change. Other somewhat less significant predictors included characteristics such as a person’s scientific knowledge, their level of individualism versus communitarianism, and demographic variables such as age, race or sex.
All of that said, the analysis also points out that people who believe in climate change are not always quick to support every climate-friendly policy that’s proposed. In general, the study’s authors note, the link between belief in climate change and support for a policy grows weaker the more specific and concrete the type of policy support being measured. For instance, people who believe in climate change are highly likely to say, generally, that they support policies that prioritize the environment over the economy. But it’s less likely that they will specifically support a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme.
This behavior may simply reflect deeply ingrained trends in the public’s feelings about certain types of policies, whether or not they have an environmental angle, suggested Aaron McCright, a sociology professor at Michigan State University whose research was also included in the meta-analysis (but who was not personally involved with the new paper). For instance, within the U.S. public at least, “even people who are pretty environmental don’t like taxes still,” he said.
And it may also be that many people with strong beliefs about climate change are still not inclined to support policies that may come at a personal cost to them. “There is a chunk of people who believe in climate change and want something done about it, but in a similar way that they want something done about third world poverty,” Hornsey said. “It’s something that ‘the world’ should deal with, but not necessarily in a way that requires personal sacrifice.”
While all of these findings may challenge certain assumptions held by the general public about climate change beliefs and their outcomes, McCright and Dunlap observed that the meta-analysis supports many ideas that are already widely held by researchers in the field. As a result, the paper may not necessarily incite many changes in the way scientists, policymakers and science communicators are already addressing the public’s views on climate change.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s any sort of smoking gun or great strategy that could emerge from this that hasn’t already been proposed or been examined or utilized out there in the world of communication and journalism,” McCright said. He did note that, given the significance of political affiliation, it may be helpful for conservative leaders who also believe in climate change to be more vocal about their positions. Such leaders are often drowned out by denialist voices, he said, but a greater effort could make a difference.
Still, the paper’s findings may help reinforce and encourage some of the more useful tactics being employed by communicators.
“What caught my attention was the role of ideologies and worldviews, and how much scientists are swimming upstream by trying to change the mind of people with a certain political mindset,” Hornsey said. “There’s a school of thought out there that rather than just repeating the evidence, you need to focus on these underlying worldviews and then make your message seem friendly to those worldviews.” For instance, he said, suggesting that environmentalism is patriotic or important for national security may help the idea resonate with some audiences.
And Dunlap suggested that it may not be so important to change people’s minds in the first place, especially since so much research has confirmed how difficult a thing this is to accomplish. Instead, he said, activists should focus their time and resources on mobilizing voters and winning elections.
“I think the solution is to elect more candidates, or more politicians, who recognize that climate change is important and action needs to be taken,” he said.