If You’ve Wondered Why So Many Politicians Deny Climate Change, Science Has Your Answer

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., one of the Senate's most high-profile deniers of climate science.

Scientists have known for a long time what’s causing current climate change. What’s been less clear is why so many U.S. politicians aren’t listening.

Sure, there’s been falsely balanced media coverage of climate science. And there are both financial and ideological incentives to deny that carbon emissions are causing the phenomenon.

But according to new research published in Nature Climate Change, there’s at least one statistically proven reason why more than 56 percent of Congressional Republicans deny climate change: echo chambers.

The term “echo chambers” traditionally refers to situations where people surround themselves with information they want to hear, and block out the rest. We’ve known for a while that these present themselves in climate politics; A 2014 study suggested that the reason Americans haven’t fully accepted the scientific consensus on climate change is because of echo chambers like Fox News, where conservative viewers are “exposed only to content consistent with their opinions, while shielded from dissenting views.”

The study published Monday, however, looked at how echo chambers specifically affected members of Congress and the people who influenced them during the 2010 debate over cap-and-trade. And what it found was that the presence of echo chambers only impeded scientific debate when they appeared on the side that denied the science of human-caused climate change. That’s because those echo chambers relied on significantly fewer pieces of peer-reviewed science to make their claims that carbon emissions were not worth limiting.

“Echo chambers themselves are not a terrible thing,” Dana Fisher, the director of the University of Maryland’s Program for Society and the Environment and co-author of the study, told ThinkProgress. “But because of the way some echo chambers form, minority opinions can be repeated and repeated, so it amplifies their perspective.”

To get their results, researchers from the University of Maryland and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center surveyed 64 of the most climate-active legislators, lobbyists, and business leaders in 2010, a particularly active time for carbon reduction policy. They asked those actors what they believed about climate science and who their sources were, and then analyzed the information using what’s called an exponential random graph (ERG) model.

What they found was the presence of echo chambers on both sides of the climate change debate — that influencers from both camps were surrounding themselves primarily with scientific information that reinforced their policy beliefs. But they also found that the echo chambers from the anti-emissions reductions camp used far fewer scientific sources to back up their opinions. So, the climate denier echo chamber sort of mimicked a situation where 20 people screamed one person’s scientific opinion so loudly that it seemed like 20 different scientific opinions. In the climate consensus echo chamber, there actually were 20 opinions.

To see how this looks, it’s useful to look at the data visualization in the study, which plotted the respective echo chambers of Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), and two scientists. Both lawmakers agreed that there should be an “international binding commitment” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but Markey accepted that humans cause climate change while Inhofe — now one of the most famed climate deniers in Congress — did not.

The top of the graphic shows Markey on the top left, and Inhofe on the bottom left. On the top right is a Columbia University researcher who agrees with the consensus on climate change, and on the bottom right is a University of Alabama scientist who does not. Echo chambers are shown more or less when three of the same color dots are connected in a triangle.


CREDIT: Nature Climate Change

Among other things, the graphic shows that the people influencing Markey and the Columbia University scientist interacted more with each other, resulting in significantly more echo chambers than Inhofe and the University of Alabama scientist. However, the Columbia scientist’s viewpoint was based on nearly double the number of sources than the Alabama scientist, and Markey’s viewpoint was based on nearly quadruple the number of actors of Inhofe’s.

In addition, Inhofe’s interactions in 2010 actually showed zero echo chambers. But, as the researchers pointed out, that’s because he only personally received information from one source, and it’s impossible to be on the receiving end of an echo chamber with only one source feeding you information.

Still, actual echo chambers were present in most of the prominent political actors denying climate change, and those chambers were based on far less peer-reviewed work than the chambers of their ideological opposites.

The reason this is harmful, according to the researchers, is that both ideologies’ echo chambers had a similar amount of political influence in the 2010 debate. In other words, the echo chambers distorted the state of science by making it seem like there was equal weight to both sides.

“[Echo chambers] are everywhere,” said Lorien Jasny, the lead author of the paper and a computational social scientist at SESYNC. “They’re on both sides, but as late they seem to be a tool for distorting consensus and amplifying minority positions.”