A new study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science (PDF available here) surveyed a nationally representative sample of over 1,000 Americans in 2008 and 2011 about their media consumption and beliefs about climate change.
The results suggest that conservative media consumption (specifically Fox News and Rush Limbaugh) decreases viewer trust in scientists, which in turn decreases belief that global warming is happening. In contrast, consumption of non-conservative media (specifically ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, and The Washington Post) increases consumer trust in scientists, and in turn belief that global warming is happening.
The study also examined previous research on this issue and concluded that the conservative media creates distrust in scientists through five main methods:
- Presenting contrarian scientists as "objective" experts while presenting mainstream scientists as self-interested or biased.
- Denigrating scientific institutions and peer-reviewed journals.
- Equating peer-reviewed research with a politically liberal opinion.
- Accusing climate scientists of manipulating data to fund research projects.
- Characterizing climate science as a religion.
Media Matters provides examples of Fox News engaging in all five of these tactics. One prime example involves contrarian meteorologist Joe Bastardi, a frequent climate misinformation guest on Fox News who Rolling Stone awarded the #1 dumbest thing ever said about global warming for claiming that CO2 "literally" cannot cause warming because it doesn't "mix well in the atmosphere."
In reality we've known for nearly 190 years that rising CO2 causes global warming, and we know for certain it's well-mixed throughout the atmosphere, as illustrated by measurements from around the world.
The results of this study can be compared to the PhD research done by my Skeptical Science colleague John Cook, at the University of Queensland. Cook surveyed representative samples of Australians and Americans regarding their political ideologies and the effect of consensus on their acceptance of human-caused global warming. After being shown evidence of the consensus on human-caused global warming, Australian acceptance of this scientific reality grew across the political spectrum, but especially among conservatives.
In the American sample, acceptance grew for most political groups, but especially among political liberals. In the American sample, there was also a small and extremely politically conservative group who actually became more likely to reject human-caused global warming in response to evidence of the expert consensus. Cook presented his data at the American Geophysical Union Chapman Conference on Climate Science Communication, shown in the video below at the 10-minute mark.
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Cook's result appears consistent with the new study published in Public Understanding of Science, which found that exposure to conservative media decreases trust in climate scientists. In short, Fox News and other conservative media outlets plant the notion that climate scientists are somehow faking evidence for human-caused global warming. This makes viewers less trusting of climate scientists and less likely to accept that global warming is happening.
With conservatives tending to get their information from conservative media sources, this is increasing the political polarization on the subject of climate change. However, with the real-world effects of climate change constantly becoming more difficult to deny, this is not a sustainable situation. Eventually reality must break in, and there are signs that this is beginning to happen.
A growing number of American conservatives are demanding that the Republican Party stop denying the problem and begin participating in crafting the solution. For example, the list of conservatives supporting a revenue-neutral carbon tax continues to grow:
- 51 percent of registered Republicans
- Art Laffer, economic advisor to Ronald Reagan
- Greg Mankiw, economic advisor to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney
- George Shultz, Reagan's Secretary of State
- Gary Becker, Nobel Laureate in economics
- Bob Inglis, former Republican Congressman from South Carolina
- A staffer for a House Republican
- William Ruckelshaus, EPA Administrator under Nixon and Reagan
- Lee Thomas, EPA Administrator under Reagan
- William Reilly, EPA Administrator under George H.W. Bush
- Christine Todd Whitman, EPA Administrator under George W. Bush
The list goes on. Moreover, 73 percent of young voters under the age of 35 associate denial of global warming with words like "ignorant," "out-of-touch" or "crazy," including 53 percent of young Republicans. Climate solutions are also growing in popularity due to their real-world success, with British Columbia's revenue-neutral carbon tax enjoying 64 percent support, and California's carbon cap and trade system experiencing 67 percent support.
The question now is how long the Republican Party's global warming denial and obstruction of climate solutions can last in the face of these growing numbers of Americans (including Republicans) demanding climate solutions. Climate misinformation from Fox News and other conservative media outlets may be stemming the tide against climate denial, but the tide is rising, both literally and figuratively.