This story is over 5 years old.


Here's What Republicans Are Thinking When They Deny Climate Change

A Duke University study found that Conservatives are actually opposed to government regulation rather than in dispute with what scientists say is causing climate change.
Image via Flickr

Conservatives are more likely to report belief in climate science if they're presented with solutions to climate change that emphasize technological innovation and free market principles rather than government regulation, according to a new study from Troy Campbell of Duke University's Furqa School of Business.

Cambell calls this phenomenon solution aversion, and it affects liberals too.

"It's about ideology not about party membership," Campbell told VICE News. "It's really specifically about your belief. It's not about being a part of a group; it's about this personal ideology."


Campbell asked self-identified Republicans and Democrats to read a statement about global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and quotes that said climate change could be solved by either developing profitable green technologies or increasing government regulation, such as imposing a tax on carbon pollution.

Obama travels to China and climate change is high on the agenda. Read more here.

They were then asked to respond to questions about how much temperatures would rise, if humans were contributing to climate change, and if humans could fix it.

Democrats didn't vary much in their belief about human-caused climate change if told it could be solved with innovation and the free market or greater regulation of the market place. But Republicans were significantly more likely — 55 percent versus 22 percent — to agree with the IPCC statement on temperature rise if they read about free-market solutions rather than regulation. And the effect was greatest among those who had the strongest belief in the free market.

In an effort to figure out why issues like climate change are so bitingly divisive, some scientists have come to question the idea that more information will lead to more informed decisions — what's known as the information deficit model. Some studies have suggested that conservatives tend to be more motivated by fear in their decision-making than liberals. For example, a psychologist at Yale University found that asking conservatives to imagine they had superpowers made them more liberal.Denying climate science, Campbell says, may be motivated by fear of the solution more than fear of the problem.


"The free market solution we gave them is still addressing an issue Democrats really care about, which is fixing the environment," Campbell told VICE News. "It's not an intensive free market solution that Democrats would normally be against. Most Democrats generally agree with some free market ideology."

'You have to find a way to convince other people that you are right and that they need to change their behavior.'

Because support of the free market is such a core tenant of the Republican worldview, climate change, which is often couched in solutions that require heavy government regulation, is personally threatening to many Republicans — enough to prompt denial of scientific fact.

"It's great to have more lab studies that reinforce and build on one another," Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University who studies science communication, told VICE News. "But I would say that at this point, researchers need to go into the field to figure out which effects that have been achieved in the lab can be reproduced in the real world and how."

Kahan said the study is "a very solid piece of research."

The Yale University professor has seen real world examples of how changing the way one talks about climate change can bring about changes in behavior. In Palm Beach County, Florida an initially skeptical Board of Commissioners agreed to move roadways that experience frequent flooding. Rather than linking the need to adapt to climate change to divisive national debates, advocates for the reforms emphasized how locals were personally impacted by more frequent flooding.


670,000 people died in China during 2012 because of pollution caused by coal burning. Read more here.

"The question, I think, is how to remove from our science communication environment the toxic influences that are interfering with the capacities we all normally make use of to recognize that evidence and give it its proper effect," Kahan told VICE News, adding that Campbell's study is "trying to answer exactly that question."

Ultimately, the answer may involve a bit of marketing, which is what led Campbell, a business school student, to look at science communication in the first place. Campbell argues that scientists may not realize just how threatening their research can be — even though their conclusions are far from controversial within their own community. Scientists, he says, need to tailor what they say to who is listening, something advertisers have known for decades.

"It's not enough just to be right," Campbell told VICE News. "You have to find a way to convince other people that you are right and that they need to change their behavior."

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro

Image via Flickr