Waffling on Climate Change? Consult Friends, Not Science

Ever since climate scientist James Hansen first testified before Congress about global warming in 1988, the scientists, advocates, academics and former vice-presidents who work to stop climate change have presumed that the science matters. Hansen began his testimony by telling the assembled senators: "The earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements," in full confidence that instrumental measurements would matter more than the weather outside the politicians' front doors. Like Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, Hansen depended on graphs (he called them "viewgraphs") and numbers to help make his case. Almost two decades later, when Gore first raised the alarm about climate change with his documentary, his strategy rested on that same science: I dare you to look at this PowerPoint and tell me climate change isn't a problem! It is an expectedly rational assumption to make, that a rational science like science should be a trump card. Inconveniently, it's not true.

A study published last week in Nature Climate Change, a leading, meticulously vetted journal of climate research, showed that the more scientifically literate people are, the less worried they are about climate change. "As respondents' science-literacy scores increased, concern with climate change decreased," wrote the study's authors, a group that includes researchers from Ohio State, George Washington University and Yale University.

The decrease is small, but what's telling is that the researchers didn't come up with the opposite result. You'd expect to see that as scientific literacy increased, so should the sense that climate change is a serious problem. That, after all, is what scientists have assumed in their warnings for more than two decades.

If smart people aren't relying on science to guide their climate-change views, the study did suggest a reason so many are willing to dismiss climate change: They belong to a social group that finds it advantageous to do so.

The researchers tested another hypothesis, too: that "cultural cognition" - which is to say, the tendency to form ideas based on group identity - determines belief in climate change. That idea checked out. "Hierarchical individualists" - think of a well-off owner of a small business who resents anyone interfering in his business decisions - rated climate change risks lower than did "egalitarian communitarians" -- the type of people who hold up Sweden as a dream society. Not surprisingly, the first group tends to gravitate toward conservatism and the Republican Party, while the second has an affinity with liberalism and the Democratic Party. In either case, the study's authors suggest, a set of climate change beliefs comes with a social advantage.

A hierarchical individualist who expresses anxiety about climate change might well be shunned by his co-workers at an oil refinery in Oklahoma City. A similar fate will probably befall the egalitarian communitarian English professor who reveals to colleagues in Boston that she thinks the scientific consensus on climate change is a hoax.

In other words, people form opinions about climate change based on their worldview and the views of the communities to which they belong. Science, yet again, has little to do with it.

These findings give heft to the vague feeling that's been dogging climate campaigners, that political affiliation, not science, is what determines a stance on climate change. Note that Gore, who declined to talk to Reuters for this piece, followed up his first climate project by recruiting a cadre of volunteers to help spread climate science with a new presentation, an updated version of the Inconvenient Truth slideshow. The Climate Reality Project, which enlists and trains these volunteers, has worked "to try and recruit presenters from all walks of life and all demographics of life and to arm them with facts and slideshow," says Kevin Curtis, the project's program director.

But this second round of "climate reality" hasn't ginned up the same horror Gore's first slideshow did. Everyone he could convince already believes him; anyone who doesn't trust him on this by now won't ever believe him. Even with a fresh batch of recruits, a scientific slideshow can't save the planet; it's too tempting to simply shoot all of these messengers. The assailants don't distrust science, necessarily. It's just that they're a skeptical bunch.

Remember, too, the evolution of Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina. In 2009 Graham put his name beside John Kerry's in a New York Times op-ed that declared: "We agree that climate change is real and threatens our economy and national security." Less than a year later, Senator Graham told reporters that "the science about global warming has changed ... I think they've oversold this stuff, quite frankly." Graham actually seemed to trust climate scientists. But he failed miserably at using scientific facts to rejigger the worldview of the political side he represents, and to keep his place in that group, he had to pull his own statements in line with its popular opinion.

And look at the creeping shift in Mitt Romney's rhetoric on climate change, which keeps edging closer toward uncertainty. Romney's been more mealymouthed than Graham about climate science, and it's easy to interpret his drift toward skepticism as political opportunism. As recently as 2010, he allowed that human activity "is a contributing factor" to climate change; by the fall of 2011, he was saying that "we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet." Why should Romney be any less susceptible to the pull of "cultural cognition" than another educated person or politician? As a conservative, he may very well believe that climate change doesn't pose a particularly worrisome risk to the world.

The study indicates, though, that liberals don't hold any particular claim to superior scientific integrity. On climate change, rigorous science happens to uphold the worldview to which they subscribe, but a better understanding of science isn't driving left-leaning Americans to support action on climate change. They support climate action because it fits in with their preconceived notions of how the world should work: It makes sense that carbon-spewing corporations are selfishly threatening the well-being of the rest of us.

Liberal defenders of science, after all, don't always take the same hard line on facts as they do in the climate debate. They oppose, for example, the spread of genetically modified food crops, citing links to allergies, immune reactions, and the possibility of other, unknown health risks even though reams of scientific research have shown that GMOs pose little threat to the environment or human health. Last month, hundreds of protesters planned to rip up fields of genetically modified wheat crops at a research center just outside of London because they were a symbol of giant agribusiness. And giant business, no matter the kind, selfishly threatens the well-being of the rest of us, according to liberals. Mainstream science might say that GMOs are safe. But knowing that won't change anyone's - and certainly no liberal's - opinion.

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