Resource Roundup: Cultural Polarization and Support for Clean Energy

Resource Roundup: Cultural Polarization and Support for Clean Energy

In the past few months there have been a number of studies and surveys released on two key themes related to climate change public opinion: 1) cultural polarization of climate change, and 2) public support for clean energy. Since I know how difficult it can be to track and read, let alone digest, all of the new research that’s released, I’ve put together a summary of some of the latest findings on these themes. I’ve included links to each of the articles below (all of which are stored in the Resource Hub and many include additional takeaways from the Climate Access team).

As part of my role at Climate Access, I collect relevant studies, guides, and news articles to add to the Resource Hub, which is a library of resources related to climate communications, public engagement, and behavior change (i.e. the social science side of the issue). We also highly encourage member suggestions, so let me know if you have articles or publications you’d like us to feature! 

   1.  Cultural polarization of climate change

Following a mild winter across most of the U.S., a Brookings survey found that an increasing number of Americans accept that global warming is occurring. This growing acceptance is related to people’s personal experiences with changes in the weather. However, party affiliation is still highly correlated with views of climate change. While Republican opinion on climate change has remained relatively fixed and apparently more politically driven, more Democrats and Independents are saying that they see evidence of rising temperatures.

A recent survey from Dan Kahan at Yale has received a lot of attention for finding that people with high levels of scientific literacy are more culturally polarized. The research suggests that people form their views on climate change in order to align themselves with their peer group. Therefore, cultural divisions, rather than a lack of scientific aptitude, may be responsible for climate denial.

A recent NPR article covered the work of Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan who investigated how partisans reject information when it produces cognitive dissonance (i.e. evidence that clashes with partisan loyalties and pre-existing worldviews). He speculates that this phenomenon influences the political landscape, as people are less willing to accept facts when they produce internal conflict.

An article in Nature Climate Change from George Mason’s Karen Akerlof examines when and where climate models have appeared in U.S. media and how they’ve become a target of climate skeptics who question the projections’ validity. The study’s authors describe how the public discourse on climate change has been more of a cultural debate than a scientific one and how the politicization of climate models has hindered their use for policy decisions.

   2.  Surveys show public support for clean energy

A survey from Stanford’s Jon Krosnick found that while public endorsement of climate policies has weakened over the past two years, support remains high for government actions that promote renewable energy development and reduce carbon emissions.

A national survey from researchers at Yale and George Mason found that Americans think climate change and clean energy should be priorities for the president and Congress, and that the public supports a variety of climate and energy policies (including renewable energy research and CO2 regulation). 

A national survey from Harvard and Yale looked at public support for a National Clean Energy Standard (NCES) and specifically how much of a household electricity rate increase is politically feasible in Congress. They found that a NCES could pass in both the House and Senate if it increases household electricity bills less than 5% on average.

A survey from PSRAI (Princeton Survey Research Associates International) showed that the U.S. public is in favor of clean energy, with a majority of Americans supporting tax credits for renewable energy production, a National Clean Energy Standard, and increased fracking regulation.

Trends in public support for clean energy are of course not distinct from trends in cultural polarization. As I read through these studies and survey findings I saw how closely public opinion on climate policy is tied to identity and worldview. The largest partisan differences are related to fossil fuel extraction and carbon reductions, which unfortunately fit nicely along stereotypical lines of drill-baby-drill conservatives and pro-environmental regulation liberals. Despite our culturally divisive public discourse about climate change, I was encouraged to see that both Republicans and Democrats can agree (at least at the moment) that clean energy should be a priority.

For climate communicators, this recent research underscores that understanding an audience’s worldview and core values is fundamental to crafting effective messages. Knowing why certain groups and individuals are unresponsive (or hostile) to climate change issues and being able to speak to the policy solutions that appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans are important tools. An awareness of why certain policies trigger discord while others speak to shared interests can help us move the conversation beyond partisan politics toward a constructive discourse about protecting our communities from harmful impacts. 

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Black Rock Solar