This is a special contribution by Paul McConnell, a Political Psychology postgrad at the University of Kent.

Conservatives Don’t Reject Climate Change: They Reject Regulation

November 19, 2016

Paul McConnell

So the leader of the most powerful country in the world, and its vice president, despite scientific consensus across the board, have called Climate Change a hoax, theory, and myth.  Pick which one you like best when passing that on. Did I mention Trump just appointed Myron Ebell to head up the Environmental Protection Agency transition team? Who’s Myron Ebell you say, oh just a guy that said this:

“We believed that the so-called global warming consensus was not based on science, but was a political consensus, which included a number of scientists.”

I’m afraid you’ve got that the wrong way round Myron(g).

To those who thought that a Climate deal was hopeless already, this may well feel like a nail in the coffin, and I fear they’re right.

Climate scepticism in the population is grotesquely inflated when compared with the scientific consensus. While the scientific community almost universally agree with anthropogenic climate change (ACC), amidst the UK general public that figure drops precipitously to just 51%.[1]

Cook et al. (2016) “Consensus on Consensus.” Visually demonstrates results of seven climate consensus studies by Naomi Oreskes, Peter Doran, William Anderegg, Bart Verheggen, Ed Maibach, J. Stuart Carlton, and John Cook.

This is despite hundreds of millions money spent on climate communications. One thing is abundantly clear, mass volumes of scientific information isn’t enough to do the job. But why not?

Anyone paying more than rudimentary attention to psychology over the last decade will likely have heard of the confirmation bias, that is, our tendency to search for, interpret, favour and recall information such that it confirms our pre-existing beliefs, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. There’s also mounting evidence for a desirability bias, which manifests in giving greater credence to evidence that supports what we want to believe. But that doesn’t necessarily explain why conservatives in particular find climate change so unconvincing. A 2014 Pew poll found that, compared to 71% for Liberals, only 27% of Republicans believed in ACC.[2]

Now while it may be tempting to conclude “because they’re selfish/short-sighted/stupid/[insert slur here]” we should probably bear in mind that if there’s any chance of salvaging a comfortable planet for future generations it’s essential we stop simply hurling insults, and start hurling a few insights. A couple of Duke University Academics called Campbell and Kay recently did just that. They suggest that the right’s climate sceptics are not motivated to reject climate change per se, but rather the solutions put forward to solve it. That is, they fall prey to solution aversion.

You may have noticed that large sections of the Republican Party are Free Marketeers that essentially act like Snake Oil salesman for socio-economic problems. However when we discuss solutions to climate change you’re likely to hear an R word that these gentlemen are real touchy about, that’s right, regulation. Regulation is as welcome to free marketeers as a half a pint of coke is to a single malt aficionado; and that matters for anyone who wants to avert climate change. Why? In Kay & Campbell’ study, all participants were shown evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on ACC and temperature rises, and then asked whether they agreed with the science. However there was one key difference. Half were primed with regulation based solutions (e.g. mandated fuel efficiency devices in cars), and half with free market solutions (e.g. carbon trading).

The response was staggering.

Around 20% of Republicans primed with regulatory solutions agreed with the climate science; however among Republicans primed with free market solutions, that number leaped to over 50%. This put Republicans closer to Democrats than their regulation primed party pals. Perhaps close enough for meaningful dialogue. When Kay & Campbell went on to measure these effects between Republicans who were more vs. less committed to free market economics, the effect became even more pronounced. In short, these findings suggest that it’s the regulatory implications that are leading many right wingers to discredit the science.

Am I saying we need to venerate the free market and that regulation must now be unceremoniously cast off the table? No. But for anyone that cares about the end goal of averting catastrophic changes to our environment – or even just persuading Joe Normal on the street of its importance – this information is well worth taking note of.


N.B.  While the Democrats come out unscathed in the climate study, don’t be assuming they come out unscathed overall. Indeed solution aversion, and biases overall, don’t just apply to members of one party, you see, biases aren’t, um, bias like that. Kay and Campbell finish their paper by illustrating that liberals start denying the problem of home invasion violence just as soon as you suggest greater access to guns for homeowners as the solution.

At this point you’re hopefully thinking about how much this solution aversion, amongst a myriad of other biases, might affect you. I hazard a guess that some readers, like myself, are also guilty of solution aversion, but engage DEFCON 1 when we hear the words “free market solution” or “privatisation” rather than regulation.

So beware the bias blind spot; and if you’re wondering where that is, check the bathroom, a few feet above your sink.

Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief,

[1] Poll results on the question “The climate change we are currently seeing is largely the result of human activity” Global Trend Survey 2014



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s