Climate Deniers Are More Likely to Hate Democracy

If you care strongly about climate change, you’re most likely to be someone passionate about democracy. If you don’t think climate change is real, odds are that you don’t find the core principles of democracy very appealing, either.

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Sep 28 2018, 1:00pm

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It’s official. Climate deniers are basically tyrants. So says a new analysis of global survey data that is likely to drive Western conservatives nuts.

The new research concludes the following: If you care strongly about climate change, you’re most likely to be someone passionate about democracy. But if you don’t think climate change is real, odds are that you don’t find the core principles of democracy very appealing either. And ironically, it’s in the West where climate denial is most ideological.

These are the findings of a major analysis of global attitudes to climate change across 36 countries by scholars at Georgia State University. The new study published in Environmental Politics this month examines data from the Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes Survey.

Previous studies have tended to focus on public opinion in the US and other Western democracies. That research shows that in English-speaking Western countries, views about climate change are heavily skewed by party political ideology. For the most part, conservatives tend to reject environmentalism, while liberals tend to see climate change as a serious concern.

While it’s often assumed that this pattern can be extrapolated to the rest of the world, the new study finds that outside the Western bubble, political ideology has little to do with concern about the climate.

Rather, the overwhelming connection is support for democratic values, described by the study as “the most important predictor of climate change concern everywhere except the English-speaking Western democracies.”

In a statement, lead study author Professor Gregory Lewis, chair of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies’ Department of Public Management and Policy at Georgia State University, said:

“The biggest surprise in this study is the strength of the Pew measure of commitment to democratic values as a predictor of climate change concern. A belief in free elections, freedom of religion, equal rights for women, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and lack of Internet censorship is nearly universal in predicting this attitude. In fact, it is the strongest predictor of climate change concern everywhere except in English-speaking Western democracies, where party identification matters more.”

Commitment to such democratic principles is a “nearly universal” predictor of concern for climate change around the world, the study finds—except English-speaking Western democracies where “political party has a large impact.”

In their study, the authors explain that being “very”, as opposed to just “somewhat” committed to democratic principles “increased the probability of believing climate change is a very serious problem by 7 to 25 percentage points in 26 of the 36 nations surveyed. It is the strongest predictor in 17.”

At first, the authors—including Risa Palm, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Georgia State and Bo Feng with IMPAQ International—tried to fit the findings into the straitjacket of political ideology. But it just didn’t work.

“We originally included it as an alternative measure of liberalism, but it is significantly related to ideology in only 4 of 13 countries, and it is only significantly higher for liberal than conservative party members in 9 of 36 countries,” they wrote in the paper.

In fact, most of the polarisation around climate along political ideology, gender, age, and religiosity that we see in the United States is not reflected elsewhere.

In the English-speaking West, for instance, women are 7 percent more likely to see climate change as a serious problem, but are about about half as likely to do so in Europe. And in the rest of the world, gender plays no role at all.

While young people in the West tend to support climate change concerns, in the rest of the world, it’s often older people that express concerns.

As for religiosity, for most English-speaking Western democracies, the more religious you are, the less concern you have for climate change—but the opposite is true for most of the world, especially in Asia and Africa.

So why is it that party political ideology is such a big deal for how we view climate change in the West? The study suggests that it has a lot to do with the fact that in Western capitalist economies, the idea that the free-hand of the market should never be interfered with (thus opposing environmental regulations or limits to fossil fuel production) has become entrenched—and is particularly associated with the political right.

“Party identification may only drive climate change opinions in advanced capitalist economies,” says the study. These involve “countries where conservatism is strongly linked to commitment to free markets, or in countries where conservative media have a strong presence.” That’s why in the US, polarisation about climate change along gender, age, and religiosity lines “may simply reflect that country’s ideological divide, with women, young people, and the less religious being more liberal.”

Lewis said that he hoped the research would help policymakers develop more effective ways to reach populations about the realities of climate change. But more ‘cross-national’ studies like this are needed to understand the polarisation of public opinion on climate change in greater depth.

In the meantime, the research to date shows that climate denial has little to do with concern for science. For the US, Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, and the UK, “party identification” with right-wing ideology (and in turn free-market fundamentalism) is the main correlate with climate denialism.

And overwhelmingly, the real correlate that appears to explain trends in climate concern worldwide is alignment with democratic principles: The more you dismiss climate change, the greater your contempt for the fundamental building blocks of a functioning democracy.