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Playing politics with climate change

Aaron Jansen illustration

What Americans believe about climate change depends almost entirely on their political affiliation and not their scientific understanding, according to a new national study that found the same dynamic in two regions of Southeast Alaska.

Democrats who claim knowledge of the issue appear to be in firm agreement with the nation’s leading scientific organizations — that human activity and greenhouse gas emissions have become the main drivers behind an accelerating global climate shift.

But Republicans don't buy it. While most do agree that the climate has begun to change, they mostly blame the phenomenon on natural forces that lie beyond human control.

Falling between these two ends of the belief spectrum are independent voters and those who say they don't know much about climate change.

One of the most partisan divides found any where in the country appeared at the northern end of the Southeast Alaska panhandle. The percentage of Democrats blaming climate change on human activities was three times larger than the percentage of Republicans with the same belief -- 77 percent versus 25 percent, according to a survey of 1,021 people from Juneau, Sitka, Haines, Yakutat and nearby communities.

Only responses from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state had the same point spread between Democrat and Republican responders.

A smaller survey of 509 people living in Ketchikan and on Prince of Wales Island found almost the same relationship. Some 63 percent of Democrats linked climate change to humans; only 24 percent of Republicans made the same connection. Independents in both areas were almost exactly in the middle.

Climate change social science

"Most people gather information about climate change not directly from scientists but indirectly … through news media, political activists, acquaintances, and other non-science sources," said study author Lawrence Hamilton, professor of sociology and senior fellow with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire in this story. "Their understanding reflects not simply scientific knowledge, but rather the adoption of views promoted by political or opinion leaders they follow."

Sorting out this link between partisanship and climate change beliefs arose from data gathered in 10 regional surveys by the Carsey Institute, mostly about other topics. Beginning in 2010, the researchers included questions that asked what people thought they knew about climate change and whether they thought climate change was caused “mainly by human activities” or “mainly by natural forces.”

From 2010 to early 2011, the researchers interviewed 9,489 people in six regions of the country, living from New England to the Gulf Coast to the Olympic Peninsula and on north. The Alaskan interviews took place in August, November and December.

What they found suggests that people might be viewing one of the world’s most difficult ecological and scientific issues through glasses colored by ideology.

The more any given person thought they knew about the issue, the more convinced they became of their position. 

"Belief in human-caused climate change remains high, between 77 and 86 percent, among Democrats with moderate or great understanding," Hamilton wrote. "Belief remains consistently low, between 23 and 26 percent, among Republicans with moderate or great understanding."

The divergence still held among Democrats and Republicans who responded they didn't know very much about climate change, although disagreement was narrower, according to the study. Even when they weren't sure, Democrats tended to blame people by a higher proportion, and Republicans blamed nature.

A curious thing happened among certain New Hampshire respondents who were interviewed as a snowstorm slammed New England in February.

"Among both Democrats and Republicans with little or no understanding … belief in climate change dropped," Hamilton wrote.

It seems that 10 days of shivering and shoveling helped those unsure about the reality of climate warming to make up their minds that it might just be a mirage.

That means, Hamilton wrote, that "people who express lower confidence ... might be more likely to change their views in response to weather."

Finding such a high correlation between one's political and climate stripes might be partly explained by the fragmented and partisan nature of media in the Internet age. People now tend to plug into outlets that tell them what they already believe and tune out contradictory information.

People "selectively absorb information ... (that fits) ... into their pre-existing beliefs," is how Hamilton put it.

While the study itself takes no direct position on which view of climate change might be most correct, Hamilton noted that there's overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue.

Scientific consensus: Human activity is changing Earth's climate

"Although there remains active discussion among scientists on many details about the pace and effects of climate change, no leading science organization disagrees that human activities are now changing the Earth’s climate," he noted. "The strong scientific agreement on this point contrasts with the partisan disagreement seen on all of our surveys."

In support, he cited an open letter to the U.S. Senate from 18 national scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union.

"Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver," stated that letter, published on Oct. 21, 2009. "These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science."

The scientists went on to urge immediate action. 

"If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced."

The issue of climate change -- and whether it's driven primarily by humans or nature -- will get sorted out soon enough, Hamilton noted, with the seasonal health of the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean becoming the "undeniable physical reality" of the public debate.

"We will find out in time -- either the ice will melt, or it won't," he wrote. "In the meantime, however, public beliefs about physical reality remain strikingly politicized."

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com