Economics and politics - comment and analysis
10. June 2016 I Will Denayer I Ecology and Growth, General, General Politics

How to convince deniers and skeptics of climate change reality?

Jack Zhou from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in Durham just published a very interesting article in Environmental Politics (see here – access is free). It makes me think of the political science literature that deals with party affiliation. The old model, to which among others Schumpeter contributed, sees the political system as a market in which politicians compete for the favour of the electorate. People vote for the politicians that they consider the best in serving their interests or defending their values. This model assumes a lot of things, for example that there is interest and not apathy, that there is reasonably undistorted information and communication, that there is the will and the intelligence within the electorate to understand problems and evaluate proposals. In fact, voting behaviour depends on altogether other factors, such the party line, vague ideologies, relations, networks, etc. Some years ago, someone published a paper in the American Political Science Review, arguing that, at least in the US, two factors taken together predict voting preference better than anything else: the party affiliation of the parents and the degree of social mobility of the voter since she or he became an adult. Voting does not depend that much on political programs, charismatic leaders, analyses of what is right or wrong, communication and persuasion or on real and perceived interests. All of these and more factors play, of course, but none is as important as the family we come from and whether we, economically speaking, have been successful or unsuccessful in our professional life compared to our parents. I wonder if this is still true today.

This is interesting, because advocates of climate change action have been asking themselves for a long time how they can advance their cause the best. Do we need to talk about polar bears and global armageddon or do we need to ‘be positive’ and given people hope? It has all been tried before and the results have remained unimpressive. How to convince people, concretely speaking, Republicans?

Zhou first explains what happens when Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) are being exposed to persuasive, correct, straightforward, logically organised information. Their attitude hardens. They end up opposing climate change more. This is step 1: forget about rationality, the power of persuasion and communicative action.

Zhou then asks if certain types of information would be more or less effective than others. He organised a survey in which respondents were asked to read one paragraph about climate change, but this time the information was linked to something else such as free markets, national security, poverty alleviation or national disaster preparation. The paragraph was presented as a quote from a fictional but realistic sounding source (either a Republican or a Democrat former Congressman). The respondents were then asked about their support for or opposition to governmental action against climate change and how sure they felt about their climate change opinions.

Zhou found that none of it made a difference, at least not in the group of hard believers. Treating those Republicans with persuasive information made them more resistant to climate action regardless of the content or sourcing of that information and being exposed to pro-climate action communication polarised them even further – they became more opposed to governmental action and more certain of their negative opinions.

If this is true, what on earth then can be done? And how can such behaviour be explained? Zhou uses the theory of motivated reasoning. In short, when we argue with motivated reasoners (people who are ‘very sure’ about their views), we ultimately do not argue against their views, but against aspects of their identity. That is what makes communication and persuasion so very difficult. The beliefs that people ‘strongly hold’ (philosophical tradition shows itself here) ultimately define them as a person, it is who they are. Motivations are not born out of ignorance, mis-education, irrationality or stupidity, they are oftentimes simply what makes that person. It is very hard to make people ‘change their mind,’ because accepting dissonant information threatens their sense of self. This is why motivated reasoners become even surer of their preferred position when given information that conflicts with their priors. This means that debunking climate change myths won’t help. According to Zhou, views on climate change are less related to education and views on science as they are to cultural and political identity – or, as I said, to the place, both real and imagined, we come from. Simply put, motivated reasoners do not seek information and arguments and then accept something as true. They believe something is true and then find information that supports their view.

So, what can be done then? Zhou does not think that it is impossible to persuade Republicans to reconsider their stance on climate change, but the state of polarisation in American politics and on climate change in particular stacks the deck against it. If the top of the party and relevant role models would move to sensible terrain, the electorate would ultimately follow. I believe that this is true, but it begs the question of why the Republican party evolved towards such radical views to begin with, which forces were behind it and how it can be reversed. Many speak about the need ‘to get money out of politics,’ but is it realistic to envisage a hyper-capitalist society with a political sphere that functions autonomously and democratically for the benefit of all? The rich and powerful would just accept the decisions of the demos? This is sheer illusion. Imagine that, one day, ‘everybody’ will be convinced and that still nothing will happen.

Zhou, Jack, 2016, “Boomerangs versus Javelins: How Polarization Constrains Communication on Climate Change.” Environmental Politics: 1–24.  (free download here).