Actually, Republicans Do Believe in Climate Change

By Leaf Van Boven and David Sherman

Dr. Van Boven and Dr. Sherman are social psychologists.

July 28, 2018

Illustration by Jeffrey Henson Scales and teddyandmia/iStock, via Getty Images Plus, photograph by Robert Landau/Corbis, via Getty Images

It is widely believed that most Republicans are skeptical about human-caused climate change. But is this belief correct?

In 2014 and 2016, we conducted two national surveys of more than 2,000 respondents on the issue of climate change. We found that most Republicans agreed that climate change is happening, threatens humans and is caused by human activity — and that reducing carbon emissions would mitigate the problem.

To be sure, Democrats agreed more strongly than Republicans did that climate change is a concerning reality. And among climate skeptics there were more Republicans than Democrats. Nevertheless, most Republicans were in basic agreement with most Democrats and independents on this issue.

This raises a question: If Democrats and Republicans agree about climate change, why do they disagree about climate policy?

As we and our colleague Phillip Ehret argue this month in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, our research suggests the problem is not so much that Republicans are skeptical about climate change, but that Republicans are skeptical of Democrats — and that Democrats are skeptical of Republicans. This tribalism leads to political fights over differences between the parties that either do not exist or are vastly exaggerated.

Republican opposition to climate policy has occurred, in part, because climate policy has been a Democratic issue. As part of our research, we interviewed several retired members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, who stressed this point. Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, spoke of his opposition in his first several years in Congress: “All I knew was that Al Gore was for it, and therefore I was against it.”

This implies that if the tables were turned — if Republican politicians proposed a climate policy — Republican voters might support it. In our research, that is exactly what we have found.

In one study, we asked Democrats, Republicans and independents to consider one of two carbon-pricing policies: a national cap-and-trade program and a national revenue-neutral carbon tax. But we varied the information we gave about political support for the policies, sometimes saying that a policy was backed by Democratic members of Congress, and sometimes saying that it was backed by Republican members.

 

In a similar study, we asked Democrats, Republicans and independents in Washington State to consider a carbon tax that was on the ballot in their state in 2016. There, we mentioned either liberal Democrats (like the Green Party of Seattle) or conservative Republicans (like the former secretary of state George Shultz) who in fact supported the initiative.

We found, in both studies, that our participants toed the party line. Republicans supported climate policies that they understood to be backed by Republicans and were neutral toward policies backed by Democrats. Democrats supported policies that they understood to be backed by Democrats more than they supported policies backed by Republicans.

Why is it so important to people whether climate policies are proposed by their own party or the opposing one? An interesting suggestion from our research is that Democrats and Republicans are swayed by partisanship because they think their fellow Democrats or fellow Republicans are even more swayed by partisanship — and they don’t want to break ranks.

We discovered this when we asked people to estimate how their fellow citizens would respond to the policies. People overestimated how much Democrats and Republicans opposed policies backed by the other side. Furthermore, these exaggerated estimates turned out to strongly predict their own support for a policy.

This finding did not come as a total surprise. Among social psychology’s fundamental lessons is that people are profoundly affected by what other people think. In their desire to be upstanding members of their political tribe, people are pulled toward embracing the stances of their peers and loath to publicly disagree with them.

As a result, the actual degree of political polarization on climate change belief and support for climate policy is considerably less than people think it is. Environmental activists often seek to increase support for climate policy by convincing skeptics about the reality and urgency of climate change. But our studies suggest that climate policy gridlock is largely about exaggerating disagreement for the sake of disagreement.

Fortunately, there is some cause for optimism. Our studies revealed a consistent, if somewhat surprising, pattern: Political disagreement was substantially smaller when it came to Republican-backed policies.

In particular, there was very little distance between Republicans and Democrats when evaluating a Republican-proposed carbon tax. This suggests that a carbon tax such as the one proposed by prominent Republicans including James Baker III and Mr. Shultz may hold more promise for bipartisan agreement than we have seen with Democratic policies in the past.

 


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