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Action to tackle climate change splits US voters along party lines

02 Aug 2018
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Reaching a consensus: a large section of both US Republicans and Democrats agree that climate change is not only happening but is also caused by human activity. (Courtesy: iStock/clintspencer)

A large section of both US Republicans and Democrats agree that climate change is not only happening but is also caused by human activity. That is according to surveys of more than 2000 members of the American public as well as interviews with two former members of Congress (Perspectives in Psychological Science 13 492).  The researchers discovered, however, that while members of both parties agree that tackling carbon-dioxide emissions would reduce climate change they disagree over how to do it — with individuals mostly supporting policies proposed by their own party.

Americans are different from many other countries, not only in the polarization of their beliefs within the major political parties but in the extent to which these beliefs are associated with environmental support for environmental action

Leaf Van Boven

Carried out by David Sherman, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), together with Leaf Van Boven from the University of Colorado and UCSB graduate student Phillip Ehret, the study found that people’s stances toward climate policy are strongly shaped by political partisanship, not simply by their belief in climate change.

Retired North Carolina Republican Congressman Bob Inglis told the researchers, for example, that because former Democratic vice president Al Gore was for action against climate change, he was against it.

The team’s studies of responses to a potential carbon tax in Washington state also confirmed that view. While individuals supported the tax if prominent party members did so, they were against it if such party members cast doubt on the scheme.

A unique phenomenon

“People want to be good group members, and so they rely on partisan cues so that they can be similar to their own political group and be dissimilar to the opposing political group. They also scrutinize claims from the opposing party more so than their own party,” says Van Boven. “What we showed in our research is that people also exaggerate how much partisanship influences other Democrats or Republicans. They think others will be even more swayed by partisanship, and thus it becomes more difficult to endorse a policy supported by the opposing party.”

Sherman adds that the divide over climate-change policies is likely to be a unique US phenomenon. “Americans are different from many other countries, not only in the polarization of their beliefs within the major political parties but in the extent to which these beliefs are associated with environmental support for environmental action,” he says. He adds, however, that such attitudes to climate change are not seen in other issues related to science and the environment.

“The paper makes several important points, in particular that a lot of opposition to X is based on the fact that X is supported by the opposing party,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol, who was not involved in the work. Lewandowsky, however, says that he was surprised to see such agreement in terms of supporting climate change despite a “plethora of results that point to intense polarization”. “I don’t know what explains the discrepancy, but it is worthy of exploration,” he adds.

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