Come in Spinner: : Conservatives and climate change: it’s complicated

New research provides some intriguing insights into why, and what sort of, conservatives oppose climate change and distrust scientists.

Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has recently found that there are significant differences in how certain groups think about science and the scientific community – particularly discovering that the conservatives most likely to distrust the scientific community tend to better educated than those who do trust it. The research has been published in an article, Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. (American Sociological Review 77(2) 167-187).

The research examines “differences in trust and group-specific change in these attitudes over time. Results show that group differences in trust in science are largely stable, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest. The patterns for science are also unique when compared to public trust in other secular institutions. Results show enduring differences in trust in science by social class, ethnicity, gender, church attendance and region.”

Now science has always been politicised – and sometimes the scientific process itself has been politicised (eg Lysenko in Stalinist Russia) – but it is increasingly politicised in different ways. According to Gauchat three main hypotheses have been advanced over the years about attitudes to science. The cultural ascendancy thesis predicts a uniform increase in public trust in science across all groups. This might be called the Enlightenment view in which, from Bacon onwards, scientists have been banishing superstition and revolutionising our knowledge of the world. The alienation thesis suggests a cultural backlash against technocratic authority has affected levels of scientific trust (think here of the impact of environmentalists, counter-cultural activists and other modern day mystics). The politicisation thesis predicts ideological conservatives will experience group-specific declines in trust.

Gauchat sought to test all this by looking at the section of the US General Social Survey (GSS) which has been sampling confidence in institutions from 1972. Specifically he looked at the question relating to trust in “the Scientific Community” and respondents choices between “a great deal”, “only some”, “hardly any” or “don’t know.”

Previous research on the topic has suggested that education is associated with greater levels of trust in science, church attendance lower. Age is non-linear with trust declining and then increasing (probably mainly due to a belief in the life-saving capacity of modern medicine). Underprivileged groups, women, non-whites, lower income families and Southerners (US version) also have lower levels of trust. However, Gauchat says, “The results (from the GSS) are quite profound because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.”

Basically, possibly mirroring Australian experience, educated and other conservatives thought science was fine in the 1970s and 80s when it was a convenient stick with which to bludgeon environmentalists and others, but became not so fine when it became a justification for government action on issues such as climate change and pollution control.

Conservative (specifically Republican) attitudes to climate change are analysed in another recent paper Republicans and Climate Change: An Audience Analysis of Predictors for Belief and Policy Preferences by various academics from George Mason, Yale and American Universities. The authors are Justin C. Rolfe-Redding, Edward M Maibach, Lauren Feldman and Anthony A. Lieserowitz and the paper is available at

Starting from the polling data which shows that Democrats are more likely (79% vs 38%) than Republicans to believe that climate change is occurring, the authors looked at factors which influenced that situation and whether there were opportunities revealed by audience analysis and segmentation to change attitudes.  They found that there were Republicans with a robust belief in climate science although other research has also found a strong media effect – for instance, if you watch FOX News you are less likely to believe in climate change. Similar research in Australia would probably find that reading The Australian has a similar effect although, as with all media effect research, we need to keep in mind Veblen’s insight that people choose media because it reflects their views rather than changing their views because of the media they consume.

The paper looks at a host of determinants of attitudes to climate science and reviews much of the research on the subject as well. The review reveals that “many Republicans who believe in climate change remain silent because they fear their views are in a minority within their own party, further relegating the debate to vocal critics of climate change”.

Australia’s conservatives are in the reverse position of course, where most climate science denialists (among politicians at least) have to pretend that they believe and will take action even while there is a chorus of business leaders and a few clerics (Cardinal Pell for instance) who proselytise against climate science – all supported by systematic and sophisticated global PR campaigns.

Of course, reflecting on the differences between conservatives in various countries it is interesting to look at some current differences between Republicans, Liberals, and David Cameron’s Tories. Cameron’s party is serious about climate change and supports a price on carbon, is about to legalise gay marriage and UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has just commented on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict saying: “Systematic, illegal Israeli settlement activity poses the most significant and live threat to the viability of the two-state solution. The Israeli government’s policy is illegal under international law, counter-productive, destabilising and provocative.” (The Age 6-7 April 2012) Just imagine a US Republican presidential candidate, a Liberal Shadow Minister or even an ALP Foreign Minister saying the same thing. At this rate we will all have to be very precise about when we use the word Tory and about whom.