Public Polarization on Climate Change Caused by Boomerang Effect, New Study Finds

A large scientific consensus has built around the role of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in causing climate change. Yet public acceptance in the US lags behind and is particularly acute with conservatives. A new study presented two weeks ago at the American Meteorological Association’s annual meeting puts forth one of the more compelling ideas of why this gap exists.

Professor Sol Hart of American University presented his findings on the boomerang effect in climate change communication. A boomerang effect occurs when presenting information has the opposite intended effect. One common example is of drug education programs such as DARE, which studies have shown students exposed are more likely to use drugs and alcohol.

The Boomerang Effect and Climate Change

To understand how the boomerang effect might be playing out when it comes to climate change, Hart performed a study of 240 participants. In the study, subjects were shown two simulated news story about how climate change would increase the chances of contracting West Nile virus for people working outdoors, such as farmers.

The two stories shared a number of similarities. Each story named and quoted 10 farmers. Both were also both based on factual findings reported by the Associated Press. And neither took a partisan stance on climate change.

There was one key difference, however. In one piece the farmers were identified as locals, while in the other they were from a different region from the subjects reading the story.

Findings showed that Democrats responded to both pieces with significantly increased support for government regulations and taxes on businesses producing large amounts of greenhouse gases. Their reaction was strongest for the story about farmers outside their region. Republicans, however, responded by showing decreased support for climate policy solutions for both pieces. Their reaction was less extreme to the story about local farmers, though.

These results stand in opposition to the science communication theory known as the deficit model, which holds that people’s opinions will move towards the scientific consensus as information and awareness about a topic increase. Why the contradiction?

Markers and Beliefs

In an email, Hart writes the answer might be twofold:

“1) individuals choose information sources that reinforce previously held beliefs, and 2) when exposed to information, individuals will tend to interpret the message in ways that reinforce previously held beliefs. In the case of climate change, this is a result of the science being politicized, and skepticism of climate change currently serving as an identity marker for being a conservative.”

This idea of climate change as an identity marker is fully visible for conservative elected officials. Take for example, John McCain. In 2003, he sponsored the first greenhouse gas reduction bill in the Senate. And in 2007 he said this of climate change: “Unequivocally I believe it’s real.”

Yet by 2010, as denialism became the norm for Republican politicians, McCain’s belief in climate change suddenly waned. In a 2010 appearance supporting New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayote, McCain had this to say about climate change:

“I think it's an inexact science, and there has been more and more questioning about some of the conclusions that were reached concerning climate change. And I believe that everybody in the world deserves correct answers whether the scientific conclusions were flawed by outside influences. There's great questions about it that need to be resolved.”

Talk about an about face. Want more proof denialism is a conservative badge of honor? Half of the 263 Republicans elected to Congress this fall openly deny climate change. And only four of the 242 Republicans in the House of Representatives have said they accept the science of climate change.

With more choices than ever as to where to get news, people can gravitate towards whatever outlets they want. The echo chamber of conservative news outlets and denialist websites still trying to hawk Climategate as proof scientists are hiding something (they’re not) further polarizes the situation. Selectively choosing these views as “facts” further calcifies disbelief in the science. And when the truth about climate change is presented, it is often seen as a threat to that ideology.

Climate Science is not an Ideology

The policy solutions for climate change can be ideological markers. This is because they’re based on beliefs about what works best. Is it a carbon tax? Cap and trade? Cap and dividend?

The reality of climate change is based on science, though. Acceptance, therefore, is not an ideology but more like the way we accept gravity as a part of our lives. Robust debate about some of the uncertainties in climate science is healthy. But utter denial of it and smearing scientists is not, especially when it’s linked to political beliefs.

The research by Hart suggests refocusing on the local effects of climate change is the key to putting things back in order. Although local situations may resonate to a lesser extent with Democrats, talking about it decreases the likelihood of further polarizing public opinion. That’s the first step to separating the politics out of science.

To further improve public support for action, the next step is to focus on specific messages. Further research has shown that some issues can be more unifying than others. For example, energy and jobs are both effective at garnering bipartisan support.

Most scientists and writers who communicate climate change findings do so with the intent to inform the public, not inspire divisiveness. The new study by Hart shows that to get science out of the political realm, framing matters more than previously thought. So take note: climate change is local.

Photo credit: Mundoo

Special thanks to Somayya Ali.