Graham Readfearn Mon 7 May 2018 16.00
f you reckon the 11 September terrorist attacks might have been an “inside job” or there is a nefarious new world order doing whatever it is the illuminati do, what are you likely to think about the causes of climate change?
Academics have suggested that people who tend to accept conspiracy theories also underplay or reject the science showing humans are causing rapid and dangerous climate change.
But a new study that tested this idea across 24 different countries found the link between so-called “conspiratorial ideation” and “climate scepticism” only really holds in the US.
University of Queensland psychology professor Matthew Hornsey and colleagues surveyed 5,300 people to test the link between climate “scepticism” and acceptance of four internationally propagated conspiracy theories around the assassination of President Kennedy, the 11 September terrorist attacks, the death of Princess Diana and the existence of a new world order.
Only in the US did the correlation fall outside the margin of error. This is perhaps not surprising, given the booming online conspiracy culture in the Trumpocene, with even would-be presidential science advisers hanging around with conspiracy theorists.
Conservatism and climate
The study also tried to tease out the links between the rejection of human-caused climate change and the ideologies that people hold.
It’s here that the study offers the greatest cause for hope, Hornsey says. He has developed a form of “jiujitsu” persuasion technique that he thinks might work.
There’s been a general acceptance that people who have broadly conservative or rightwing ideologies tend to rail against climate science because it rubs their worldview up the wrong way. That is, that tackling climate change will require broad interventions from governments.
But Hornsey’s study finds that “there is nothing inherent to conspiratorial ideation or conservative ideologies that predisposes people to reject climate science”.
Instead, it suggests vested interests have managed to reshape the conservative identity with “ignorance-building strategies” in two countries – the US and Australia.
I think it’s a result of two things. First, a lot of the big business interests that are threatened by climate change are situated in the US. My overall argument is that there’s nothing inherent to political conservatism that makes people want to reject climate science.
Rather, the link between conservatism and climate scepticism only emerges in countries that are economically threatened by the notion of responding to climate change. When the vested interests are high (in terms of the fossil fuel industry, for example) then there is more of a motivation for big business to engage in an organised campaign of misinformation around climate change. These campaigns often develop as a collaboration between the fossil fuel industry and conservative thinktanks, media and politicians, and are designed to “coach” conservatives to believe that the climate science is not yet settled. From this perspective, conservatives don’t spontaneously feel the need to reject climate science; they only do so when they are taking their cues from conservative elites, and these cues only emerge when the economic stakes are high.
Second, America has an unusually intense brand of conservatism, one that has a particularly strong opposition to government interference in the free market. Climate science is a nightmare for these people, because in some ways it does imply a big-government response designed to regulate industry.
What role do the views of high-profile politicians have in influencing voters to think about the issue in a certain way?
I think it plays a massive role. In many countries, climate scepticism is not part of the language of the conservative parties. But in Australia and America it is. So in those countries being a climate sceptic starts becoming part of the package of attitudes that you’re supposed to have if you’re a good conservative. The obvious example of this is in the US. Of the 17 candidates who campaigned to be the Republican nominee for the 2016 presidential campaign, the majority were climate change sceptics. So people’s sense of what it means to be a Republican in America has expanded to incorporate something that shouldn’t really be political, like climate science. There, people advertise their climate scepticism like they’re advertising their political gang colours. It’s not quite as bad here, but threatened to become like that during the [Tony] Abbott era.
Why do you think this has happened?
I think it’s all about vested interests. When the vested interests are high, the fossil fuel industry and conservative thinktanks, media and politicians collaborate in an organised campaign of misinformation. In my data, the link between conservatism and scepticism is really only obvious in countries with high per capita carbon emissions. If you think of per capita carbon emissions as a measure of how fossil fuel reliant a country is, then this makes sense. In countries with low fossil fuel reliance – where the vested interests are low – then there’s no need to kick off a campaign of misinformation, and no motivation to believe one either.
Yes, but most conservatives aren’t paying that much attention. I really think conservatives have to be trained and coached to pay attention, and to see the issue through the lens of their worldviews. In the 1980s you didn’t see conservatives get upset about governments shutting down CFCs to protect the ozone layer. Technically the issue was the same – government regulations curbing the freedom of industry – but because the vested interests were low there was no need for conservative elites to fight back.
What do you think it would take for the US and Australia to break the apparent link between conservative ideology and climate “scepticism”?
As the negative consequences of climate change become more severe and more immediate, I think the ideological element will fade away (although by then it’s likely to be too late, sadly). The other option is to use what I call “jiujitsu” persuasion techniques; to talk about climate mitigation in a way that aligns with people’s underlying ideologies rather than competing with them. There’s already evidence that if you frame climate change mitigation as something that’s sympathetic to free markets, or as a patriotic act designed to maintain energy security, or as a chance to generate green jobs, then conservatives are less likely to resist the science.