Conservatives who reject the science of climate change aren't necessarily reacting to the science, according to a new study from researchers at Duke University. They're reacting to the fact that they don't like proposed solutions more strongly identified with liberals.
The paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looks at the relationship between political ideology and rejection of scientific evidence. The researchers look most closely at climate change and other environmental challenges, an area where those who identify as liberals or Democrats mostly accept scientific conclusions while conservatives or Republicans largely reject them. The researchers conclude that on climate and other important societal issues, this denial is "rooted not in a fear of the general problem, per se, but rather in fear of the specific solutions associated with that problem."
The authors blame this denial of climate science on what they deem "solution aversion," i.e., the proposed solutions are "more aversive and more threatening to individuals who hold an ideology that is incompatible with or even challenged by the solution."
In the case of climate change, the most discussed solutions include regulatory actions like limits on greenhouse gas emissions or additional taxes on carbon pollution. And for the most part, conservatives aren’t really into regulations and taxes.
“Our research joins past research in showing that people in general tend to deny the problem when the cure to that problem is scary," Troy Campbell, lead author of the paper and a doctoral candidate at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. "For conservatives, the cure to the climate change problem, at least the one everyone talks about, is particularly scary to them, so it makes sense that we see more skepticism on their part."
Their research also found that this tendency isn't limited to conservatives; they found that some liberals, too, "will deny facts and science too, when the popular solutions and implications are undesirable to them," said Campbell, pointing to other research that has found that trend as well. Another area of their study looked at how survey respondents interpreted data about violence related to home break-ins based on their personal positions on gun control, and also found that respondents rejected data if it did not support their pre-existing position on guns.
On climate change, this tendency toward "solution aversion" brings us to somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy. If conservative politicians cast doubt on whether climate change is even happening, they're not inclined to offer their own solutions to the problem. And without conservative solutions, the ideological divide on the issue seems likely to continue.
That is, unless people who care about the climate can find new ways of talking about it.
Right now, said Campbell, "the narratives and solutions around climate change are anti-conservative."
"It's not a narrative they can see themselves participating in, and that is to some degree climate change communicators' fault," he said. But an alternative narrative, one that depicts climate change as consistent with conservative values like "innovation" or "protecting America," could be more effective, he said.
He also warned that this tendency isn't necessarily something that's easy to change. "These things are linked to people's ideologies, and ideologies are incredibly core aspects of people's self. Those core aspects do not change easily," he said. "One thing that is important for anyone in climate change communication is to understand they are playing a long game."
This post was updated to note the paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.