The Politicization of Climate Change

Why has climate change become a politicized issue?
Image Credit: Fibonacciblue

In the mid-1990s, three sociologists published a paper examining the commonly-held belief that Americans were more polarized about social issues than in the past. While their paper found evidence of polarization in a limited number of issues like abortion, the authors concluded that there was little evidence to support the public perception of a “culture war” occurring. However, more recent data for the late 1990s to early 2000s showed “stronger evidence of polarization.”1 Climate change has somehow found itself deep in the mix of this divide, despite the scientific consensus supporting it. Today’s post explores why climate change came to be a politicized issue.

First and foremost is the issue of ideological difference. American conservative ideology, which champions limited government and the free market, is generally averse to accepting governmental regulations or policies that disrupt industrial capitalism. American liberal ideology, on the other hand, typically promotes collective rights and has been shown to be more “amenable to critiques of the established order” For conservative leaders to readily accept the science of climate change would be to admit regulations as necessary. An admission of this sort would cast some ambiguity into the infallibility of the free market and by extension conservative ideology. Further, such an admission could open up the gauntlet for even more regulations and scrutiny.This made the environmental movement a potential albatross for conservative ideology, and thus it was unsurprising that conservative leaders embraced scientific outliers questioning climate change science.

This tendency to gravitate toward opinions that reinforce previously held ideological understandings is not specific to climate change belief. Researchers theorize that in situations where there is conflicting information, people tend to “rely selectively on information from partisan leaders whom they trust,” meaning that political orientation acts as a filter for information.3 All of this, no doubt, was exacerbated by the prevalence of partisan media outlets providing different information. Further, Boykoff and Boykoff’s thesis4 (see more here) suggests that even relatively neutral media sources may have skewed the public to accept whatever version aligned with their overarching ideological beliefs.

All of this relates to the bigger issue of whether people trust the institution of science. Research has shown that not only are conservatives more likely to distrust the science of climate change but that this increasing skepticism is true for science as a whole. In fact, despite having the highest percentage of trust in science for 1974, American conservatives had the lowest percentage of trust in 2010.5 Some have explained this growing distrust as stemming from a “shift toward regulatory science” in the 1970s. This shift, they say, clashes with conservative values and has “helped mobilize conservative discontent.”6

Many researchers feel that providing more scientific information has, and will continue to be, an ineffective method to convince climate change doubters. Obviously this presents a serious roadblock to climate activists’ goal, forcing them to reevaluate their strategy. Meanwhile, some scientists have spoken up, offering policy recommendations as well as politically-charged statements about the implications of their findings. Next week’s post will explore the role of scientists in the political arena and what some scholars claim to be the politicization of climate change by scientists themselves.

1 McCright, Aaron and Riley Dunlap. “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming, 2001-2010.” The Sociological Quarterly 52 (2011): 156

2 McCright, Aaron and Riley Dunlap. “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming, 2001-2010.” The Sociological Quarterly 52 (2011): 160

3 McCright, Aaron and Riley Dunlap. “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming, 2001-2010.” The Sociological Quarterly 52 (2011): 161

4Boykoff, Maxwell T. and Jules M. Boykoff. 2004. “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press.” Global Environmental Change 14:125-136.

5Gauchat, Gordon. “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974-2010” American Sociological Review (2012): 174

6Gauchat, Gordon. “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974-2010” American Sociological Review (2012): 171

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