Why Republican climate-change skepticism has grown as the planet has heated up

By Robert Wright, Dec 14 2019

If you’re a liberal who has been trying to change the minds of conservative climate change skeptics, social science now offers this guidance: Cut it out! The first step toward convincing them that they’re wrong may be to quit trying to convince them that they’re wrong.

That’s one takeaway from a study presented last month by two political scientists, Dominik Stecula of Penn and Eric Merkley of the University of Toronto. They found that people who strongly identified as Republican and were shown the scientific consensus on climate change were less likely to accept it if they were also shown warnings about the perils of climate change from prominent Democrats.  

By itself this isn’t big news. We’ve long known that, just as people sometimes use “in-group cues” to form their views—that is, they uncritically accept opinions prevalent in their tribe—they can also use “out-group cues,” rejecting opinions because they’re held by the enemy tribe. And you’d expect this effect to be especially strong in an age, like ours, of “negative partisanship”—when the two political parties seem to be held together largely by dislike of each other. 

But Stecula and Merkley go further and suggest that the power of out-group cues may help explain an underappreciated fact: Republican skepticism about climate change has grown over the past two decades, even as evidence of global warming has accumulated. A 1997 survey, they note, found that 73 percent of people who strongly identified as Democrats believed that global warming was happening—and the corresponding number for people who strongly identified as Republicans was only slightly lower, at 68 percent. 

In this view—though Stecula and Merkley don’t put it exactly like this—growing Republican climate change skepticism could be partly a product of negative partisanship. The more Republicans dislike Democrats, the less they’ll like the Democrats’ view of the world.

But this raises a question: If indeed the two parties’ views on climate change weren’t all that different in the 1990s, then how did concern about global warming get so strongly identified with Democrats that Republicans could react against it on partisan grounds?

Well, some divergence of view between the two parties was in the cards from the get-go. The generic policy implications of climate change—impose some form of regulation or restraint on energy producers and/or consumers—were bound to rankle Republican elites (politicians, pundits, big donors) more than Democratic elites. So cues from in-group elites should, by themselves, lead the Republican grassroots at least some distance toward climate change skepticism. And cues from out-group elites—warnings from high-profile Democrats about climate change—could help sustain that drift.

Which kind of elite cue—in-group or out-group—has played a bigger role in increasing Republican climate change skepticism? To shed light on that question, Stecula and Merkley looked at two kinds of evidence over time: the frequency of climate change pronouncements made by elites of both parties and reported in the media, and survey data that captured grassroots Republican attitudes toward climate change. 

There’s no way of proving a causal link between the first of those variables and the second, no way of determining for sure that changes in elite signaling cause changes in grassroots attitude. But there is a statistical procedure that tells you whether changes in the former are predictive of changes in the latter—whether, if you know how much elites were talking about climate change at one point in time, that helps you guess what grassroots attitudes toward climate change will be at the next point in time. And the more predictive power these elite cues turn out to have, the stronger your grounds for suspecting that there’s a causal link. In stats jargon, this predictive relationship between variables is called “Granger causality.” 

It turns out that cues from Republican elites—pundits and politicians speaking skeptically about climate change—have indeed “granger caused” growth in grassroots Republican skepticism. But this effect is weak compared to the effect of pronouncements from Democratic elites; when Democratic pundits or politicians warn about climate change, that really “granger causes” growth in grassroots Republican skepticism.

You can get a visual sense for this difference by looking at the graphs below. The one on the left charts cues from Republican and Democratic elites on climate change over time as reflected in the media. The one on the right charts grassroots Republican climate change skepticism over time. Note that when this skepticism takes a sharp upward turn—starting around the beginning of 2008 and continuing through that year—there’s been no big change in the frequency of Republican elite cues, but there has been a big jump in the frequency of Democratic elite cues.  

As for what caused the upsurge in high-profile Democratic pronouncements on climate change: The authors don’t get into this, but it’s notable that Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth won the Academy Award in 2007, helping to canonize climate change as a liberal talking point. With an election approaching in 2008, it would be natural for Democratic candidates and commentators to amplify that talking point. 

I was kidding, kind of, when I said earlier that one takeaway from this study was that if you’re a liberal you should quit trying to persuade conservatives about climate change. For one thing, Stecula and Merkley were studying the role of elites in giving both in-group and out-group cues, and there’s a good chance that you don’t qualify for their definition of “elite.” (Sorry—there was no way to break that to you gently.)

Still, in-group and out-group cues can also operate at the grassroots level, even if that wasn’t the subject of this particular study. And awareness of the power of out-group cues in an age of negative partisanship might usefully inform your online behavior. 

For example: If you’re thinking about challenging someone’s climate change views online, you might consider bending over backwards to convey civility and respect. Granted, that’s not new advice. But it makes particular sense at a time when liberals and conservatives hold such negative stereotypes about each other that just being polite could, by defying stereotype, weaken the perception that you’re part of the enemy tribe—and so make your message less likely to register as an out-group cue.

And, if you’re a liberal elite (you know who you are!), well…I’ll let Stecula and Merkley take over here. They see their findings as suggesting that “party elites who strongly identify with the scientific consensus on climate change” should “weigh the costs and benefits of aggressively communicating their stance in the mass media.” Of course, making the case for climate change concern on TV or radio is a job somebody’s got to do. But if, when CNN calls, you can politely demur and steer the booker toward a Republican elite who worries about climate change, you’ll be doing your tribe a service.

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