What Do We Think About Climate Change, and Why?

Studies of attitudes to climate change show they correspond to political views

Posted Mar 18, 2018

A recent longitudinal review of studies into the US population’s beliefs about climate change since the early 1980s discloses that they are very similar to positions on other major political issues, such as violence, racism, and socialism. In all such cases, the clue to a divided society lies in “partisan and ideological polarisation enhanced by communications from elites.” In other words, people largely follow the arguments put forward from their side of electoral politics and within their preferred media sources.

That said, various attitudes to climate change are specific to how people think about risk; the faith they have in science; and their religiosity, gender (women get it, men less so), and life experiences. Even when people believe the science, they largely decline to place a high priority on mitigating the impact of climate change when compared with managing local pollution, controlling gun use, or maintaining consumption as a way of life. And Americans often refuse to accept that climate change is caused by human conduct.

The partisan aspects to these divisions relate to the transformation of both major political parties since the 1960s. The Democratic Party has gone from an alliance of rural segregationist Southerners and industrial Northerners into a new grouping of the culture industries, highly-qualified urban professionals, secularists, minorities, and immigrants. The Republicans have transmogrified from an alliance of manufacturing capital and suburbanites into one formed of evangelical Christians, rural workers, investors, and military families.

On the Republican side, an emergent disaffection with university-based intellectuals, technocrats, and other urban ‘experts’ has been part of these changes, alongside, and as part of, a deepening faith in other kinds of intellectuals, such as charismatic preachers, businesspeople, and stock-market journalists. Given the record of the latter in improving the lives of their flocks, and the failure of trickle-down economics, one might have expected a rejection of such authorities and a return to faith in traditional sources of reason and rationality. This has not occurred. Why?

We’re increasingly being told by researchers from various sectors of the academy that the reason so many folks accept and even favour economic and social policies that work against their own self-interest is their love of money and loathing of expertise—the sense that those who speak out against educational and policy élites do so with a common touch that also holds out the promise of upward mobility. It doesn’t seem to matter that this distorted American dream twists reality into a miasma of falsehoods and fantasies.

Such affinities have profound roots, as one of our most enduring media—books—can illustrate. Almost a century ago, F Scott Fitzgerald penned these famous words in his short story, “The Rich Boy”: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different”.

A decade later, Ernest Hemingway wrote the following in “The Snows of Kiliminjaro”: “The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how someone had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Julian. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him”. ‘Julian’ stood in for Fitzgerald in the story, after the real-life author had reacted badly to being directly named in an earlier version.

There’s a reason we still read these deeply flawed, arrogant, self-satisfied, tortured, and torturing critics and fans of American life. It’s not just to do with their clipped, clear prose, and reporters’ eyes. They understood that the majority of our population prefers emulation to envy, something confirmed by polling. Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s words may not have disabused readers of a belief in the dollar transcending class privilege of the kind that populists are, ironically, so often born into. But they found a way to ask what differentiated those with real, unearned power from the rest of us—especially folks who place such touching faith in their pronouncements.

If the truth about climate change is to percolate throughout society, we must offer people the truth about how profound social inequality has become—and that the current extent of it was not always the case, and need not remain so. That will be part of persuading American opponents to climate science that their misapprehensions about the possibility of upward mobility match their environmental misunderstandings, such that they may even prosper from green policies.

This is not to denounce people who hold the beliefs we are problematizing, and certainly not to favor one half of our Tweedle-dum Tweedle-dee corporate politics. Rather, we want to offer everyday climate deniers an alternative perspective, one founded in facts and probabilities, in history and contemporaneity, rather than myths and dreams—however beguiling the latter may be. Better to follow élite knowledge than élite power. One lets you share in its wealth; the other—not so much.

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