Political Winds, Not Science, Sway Conservative Republicans on Climate Change

 Alan Neuhauser
  11th-May-2018

THE STAUNCHEST SKEPTICS of climate change appear to be influenced as much by politics as they are by scientific evidence, according to data from a new survey released this week.

In the span of just seven months under President Donald Trump, pollsters recorded a 9-point jump in registered GOP voters who believe that climate change is being mostly fueled by emissions from power plants, motor vehicles and similar activities.

The biggest swing occurred among self-described liberal and moderate Republicans, who saw a 14-point leap in the share of voters who accept climate science – more than half now agree that humans are driving climate change.

But even among conservative Republicans, that percentage rose by 5 points.

The sudden shift caused a stir among researchers with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which conducted the survey, as well as scholars and advocates who follow climate policy and sought to explain the change in views – especially among Republicans who were the most hard-line opponents to climate action and even climate science.

Much of the reason may be tribal politics: As Joseph Majkut, director of Climate Policy at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, points out, policies to address climate change are no longer being championed by the opposition party.

"On an issue that is associated with political identification like global warming, most people don't have strong empirical belief," Majkut says. "It's a hard thing to learn about, it's complicated, it's a relatively low-salience issue worried about the future. So they adopt things that their tribal affiliates and allies tell them. So if Fox News is blasting a lot less climate skepticism over the last six months or year – because there's no real threat of political action on climate change, maybe views have shifted – they repair toward the average or repair toward the empirical."

Conservative Republican acceptance of climate science in many cases would appear to correlate with political events on the national stage:

In November 2008, just as the last Republican president was nearing the end of his term, more than half of conservative Republicans accepted that climate change was occurring. By January, however, on the eve of President Barack Obama's inauguration, that share had dropped to less than 30 percent – and it hasn't crested the 50-percent mark since.

"The main explanation is, what we call in political science terms, political elite cues, which is a fancy way of saying Republican leaders – and it was mostly Republicans – started bashing climate change with the rise of the tea party, which is what happened at that time in reaction to the Obama election," says Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale program. "The entire Republican Party takes this hard right turn. And on the issue climate change, they go from 'Climate change is real and an official part of our platform' to going all the way out on the last twig of the limb and saying climate change is a hoax."

While it can't be determined for certain that politics was the cause, belief in climate change among conservative Republicans has at times correlated with similar political events since then:

In November 2013, the percentage of conservative GOP voters who agree that the planet is warming tumbled 14 points between two surveys taken just seven months apart, from 41 percent to 27 percent, falling by more than a third to its lowest level since 2008. During that stretch, Obama, frustrated by congressional inaction, pledged in a high-profile address to the nation that he would use executive action to reduce U.S. emissions.

Belief in climate change among conservative Republicans would then begin a mostly steady climb until May and October last year, when that percentage dropped again – roughly the same time that President Donald Trump was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.

"Trump and his administration clearly and loudly said that climate change is either a hoax or it's not a serious problem or we're going to pull out of Paris. He put [Scott] Pruitt in charge of the EPA, who's going to rescind the Clean Power Plan. So you saw Republican voters in particular falling in line with what their leadership told them," Leiserowitz says.

The more recent uptick in accepting climate science among Republicans, he continues, could mean this apparent a "Trump Effect" has bottomed out: The administration, having accomplished many of its goals on environmental action already simply isn't focusing on climate change the way it once did.

"When Republican leaders aren't talking about climate change much ... Republican views start to rebound," Leiserowitz says. "When they stop talking about it, people forget. They go on with their lives."

In some areas of the Yale survey, such as the percentage of Republicans who accept that climate change is being caused by human activities or the proportion of Republicans who are worried about climate change, the results hit an all-time high.

Republicans still lag far behind Democrats in accepting climate science and supporting policies to address global warming. Moreover, while global warming ranked No. 4 of 28 priorities among self-described liberal Democrats, it placed last for conservative Republicans.

Voters' views on climate change also vary by region: More Republican voters along America's coasts, for example, tend to accept climate science than those in the interior of the country, according to data compiled by the Yale program.

The reasons are not clear, although some advocates speculate that belief in climate change may be higher in places where the impacts of climate change – such as rapid erosion, more frequent flooding and stronger hurricanes – are already being felt.

"When your community is getting battered by hundred-year-storms and floods on a regular basis and the seas are rising before your eyes, it gets harder and harder to ignore the reality that the climate is rapidly changing and something must be done to cut carbon pollution," Grace McRae, polling and research director at the Sierra Club, said in a statement. "Republicans, just like everyone else living in this country, are dealing with the painful and costly consequences of the climate crisis and are increasingly concerned and supportive of action."

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