Facts can only get you so far.
That’s one of the lessons from new analysis out of the University of Queensland, which looked at dozens of studies and found that political leaning is more predictive for climate change denial than things like life experience or education.
And despite the common conception that climate deniers are predominantly older white men, there actually is not a strong correlation by any other demographic but ideology, the lead author of the paper, psychology professor Michael Hornsey, told the Washington Post. “People higher in skepticism are more likely to be old, white and male – but the effects are so tiny you have to squint to see them. What really popped was people’s ideologies, political values, worldviews.”
One might glean from these findings, published Monday in Nature Climate Change, that Republicanism is the leading cause of climate denial.
Education, gender, general knowledge, and experience of extreme weather had little effect, the studies showed. Perhaps that’s how Harvard-educated presidential nominee and son of a scientist Ted Cruz can bring himself to hang his hat on a single data point, rather than simply accept that the conclusion reached by the majority of climate scientists is correct.
The ideological difference is “nothing surprising for anyone who actually does cognitive science,” George Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley-based cognitive scientist told ThinkProgress. “It has to do with the way in which conservative versus progressive values are understood unconsciously.”
Climate change activists simply see the world differently than climate deniers.
Some people “seem to believe that it’s all simply getting people the facts, and they will reason to the right conclusion,” Lakoff said. “It doesn’t work that way. Brains don’t work that way.”
The difference is stark. In fact, according to the paper, there is a “strongly positive” link between knowledge and belief in anthropogenic climate change — but only for Democrats and Independents. That is, the more knowledgeable Independents and Democrats reported themselves to be, the more likely they were to accept the science of climate change. For Republicans, the level of reported knowledge didn’t matter.
Suzanne Shaw, director of communications for the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed that the study reflects the experience of climate action advocates, but she disagreed that knowledge can’t make a difference.
“One thing I think is an important takeaway is that facts alone are not going to win the day and drive climate action,” Shaw told ThinkProgress. “But the story here is not that facts don’t matter.”
While general facts and studies don’t seem to sway beliefs, she believes that real-life threats such as droughts, storm surges, and wildfires — what Shaw calls “resonant concerns” — can be motivators.
“When you talk about it in very abstract terms, it’s very hard for anyone to get a handle on,” Shaw said. “When you’re talking about wildfires in western states, or the drought,” for instance, you might ask, “What are the things we can do in California to help protect ourselves?”
Even for people who aren’t convinced that higher greenhouse gas emissions are fueling extreme whether, a skeptic might think climate actions are “a bet I’m willing to take.”
If anything, this report points out how hard it is to get anyone — Republican or Democrat — to take action. Even for people who accept the science on climate change, there was only a slim effect on willingness to take “climate-friendly” action. In other words, people who believe that we are making the earth uninhabitable for large swaths of humanity aren’t much more likely than outright deniers to actually do anything about it.
Although, of course, if you don’t believe scientific reports, this new data won’t convince you of anything new.