By Christopher Flavelle
The American Association for the Advancement of Science is trying to awaken more Americans to the dangers of climate change, with a report Tuesday that focuses on a clear and accessible explanation of the evidence. It’s a commendable and necessary effort, but what if the problem goes deeper than language?
The available polling data suggests Americans’ views on climate change increasingly have more to do with politics than science. As I wrote in December, Republicans and Democrats used to agree about the need for stricter laws to protect the environment: More than 90 percent of respondents from both parties supported the idea in 1992.
Two decades later, the share of Democrats who said they support stricter environmental protections was still above 90 percent. But the share of Republicans who said the same had dropped by half, to 47 percent. The Pew Research Center, which performed the survey, called environmental protection arguably "the most pointed area of polarization" over that period.
What’s interesting about that change is that whatever you think about the strength of the scientific consensus on climate in 2012, it was leagues stronger than in 1992. So even as the science was becoming clearer, Republican support for doing anything about it was plummeting.
Polling data released this month by the Gallup Organization further underlines that partisan split. Gallup found that 36 percent of Democrats cited climate change as something they worry about, compared with just 10 percent of Republicans. The only area that showed a bigger partisan gap was the size and power of the federal government, along with its corollary, federal spending and the deficit.
Gallup found an even larger gap when it asked about the effects of climate change. When asked whether global warming had already started, 73 percent of Democrats said yes, compared with just 36 percent of Republicans. Fifty-six percent of Democrats called it a serious threat to their way of life, compared with only 19 percent of Republicans. Fully one-third of Republicans said global warming would never happen, something just 3 percent of Democrats agreed with.
It’s one thing when Republicans and Democrats disagree on questions of values, such as whether the government ought to provide health insurance for those who can’t afford it otherwise. But big disagreements over descriptive questions — questions of observation and fact, rather than of preference — suggest something else is going on.
One possible interpretation is that Republicans are just plain worse than Democrats at absorbing and understanding science. That’s absurd, and Democrats who reach that conclusion will only make this debate harder to resolve.
Another possibility is that Republicans are being deceived, whether by their news outlets, their opinion leaders or their political representatives. That’s a tempting conclusion, but it feels too limited. Sure, liberals and conservatives watch different television stations, but they’re not living in different countries. The gaps picked up by Gallup suggest some deeper division.
A third interpretation is that political preferences have leaked into the perception of fact. Republicans may conflate the existence of climate change with the need for more government — more federal research, more federal programs, more intervention in the economy, and more taxes to pay for all of it. Rather than relax their objection to government, maybe it’s easier to look for reasons to think that climate change isn’t happening, or isn’t serious.
If this new effort by climate scientists makes it harder for that kind of self-deception to continue, kudos to them. But the human capacity to believe whatever suits you is close to endless. Maybe easing Republicans’ resistance to the idea of climate change will require easing their resistance to the idea of government as an occasional force for good.
Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View’s editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @cflav.
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