Even in the face of a strong scientific consensus, disagreements regarding climate change continue to persist – ones that run largely along political lines. Recently, Northwestern researchers James Druckman and Mary McGrath investigated the rationale behind these opposing views through an article in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Climate Change.
Druckman, a political science professor, and McGrath, an assistant political science professor, co-authored a review article that aimed to provide an alternate explanation for a partisan divide in climate change beliefs – an explanation that could contribute to real environmental change through the political arena.
“Climate change is an extremely political issue,” McGrath said. “It’s one that is surprisingly far down the list in terms of most people’s attention in the political world.”
According to Druckman, most Democrats have accepted human-induced climate change as valid, while some Republicans are still dubious of the idea. In the past, these political differences have been attributed to motivated reasoning, which means that those who are skeptical of climate change reject sound scientific reasoning because it contradicts their personal beliefs.
“When you see someone whose beliefs seem to be wildly different from your own, you sometimes have trouble understanding how they could be thinking that way,” McGrath said. “I think there’s a bit of a tendency to then jump to the conclusion that they’re doing something wrong intentionally.”
What Druckman and McGrath found through their research is that this hypothesis of motivated reasoning is not necessarily the best or only way to explain the political divide in climate change beliefs. Rather, they argue that an accuracy-motivated model – which describes climate change disbelief as stemming from distrust of the source that is presenting the information – provides a more clear justification.
Based on Druckman and McGrath's research, the accuracy motivated model can offer insight into the way messages should be targeting members of the American public that are still skeptical. If scientific information regarding climate change is offered through outlets that are completely trusted by Republicans, those individuals may be more likely to actually accept that information.
Some changes in the presentation of these messages may already be occurring, as information is more often given in a way that appeals to Republican values or religious views, resulting in a decrease in the size of the partisan gap. According to a study conducted by Stanford University, Republicans underestimate the number of their own party members who have growing concerns about climate change. The New York Times also recently reported that majorities in both political parties agree that the world is experiencing global warming, and both parties share common ideas for how climate change should be combated.
If changes in the presentation of climate change methods continue to progress, the government will have the potential to implement policies that can improve the state of the environment and combat climate change. If not, McGrath says, change will be nearly impossible.
“The only way to address climate change is through political action,” McGrath said. “If the message is divided along partisan lines, we’re just going to keep hitting these impasses.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Professor James Druckman's first name. The story was updated Feb. 5 at 7:38 p.m. NBN regrets this error.