The Politicization of Climate Change

by Brendan Busch

In recent years, the debate over the proper response to climate change has become increasingly political rather than scientific. Noting this, Kerrie L. Unsworth, a professor and associate dean at the business school of the University of Western Australia, and Kelly S. Fielding, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Queensland, set out to study the effects of an individual’s political affiliation on their opinions about climate change. Before presenting their own research, Unsworth and Fielding point to a 2003 study by G.L. Cohen that demonstrated people’s tendencies to follow their chosen political party unquestioningly, by showing that people were likely to support a welfare policy that was approved by leading members of their political party even if the policy went against their own personal beliefs or the core values of the party itself. Observing this study, Unsworth and Fielding wondered if they could produce a similar result with respect to climate change.

In order to test the degree to which political association affects climate change beliefs, Unsworth and Fielding surveyed two different groups of randomly selected Australians. One group was reminded of the major political parties’ stances on global warming before being asked about their own opinions, thus reinforcing with their political identity (Unsworth and Fielding define this process as making the subjects’ political identity “salient”). The other group, the control group, was not reminded of their party’s position on climate change, and thus did not have their political identity made salient. After conducting their survey, Unsworth and Fielding found an important distinction between those who identified with the Liberal or National Parties (Australia’s right-leaning parties) and those who identified with the Labor or Green Parties (Australia’s left-leaning parties). While there was little difference between the opinions of the control group and the politically salient group for the leftist parties (who tend to support active response to climate change), there was a significant difference between the groups when it came to the rightist parties (who tend to deny the existence of climate change). In universities, 64.4% of the rightist control group believed that humans had a significant impact on climate change, while only 40.5% of the politically salient group expressed the same beliefs. A similar result was found for the general population of Australia, with a negligible difference between the leftist groups and a 44.7% to 36.0% split between the rightist control group and the politically salient rightist group respectively.

Seeing as the only difference between members of the control group and politically salient groups was their reminder of the parties’ climate change stances prior to the survey, Unsworth and Fielding assert that simple affiliation with conservative parties (rather than an agreement with the parties’ ideology) can have a significant effect on people’s climate change beliefs. Although this survey was conducted only in Australia, Unsworth and Fielding believe that it has international repercussions, as Australia has a very similar political climate to both the United States and the United Kingdom. Although the study shows that political affiliation with the right currently propagates climate change denial, Unsworth and Fielding are optimistic about the survey’s implications. Based on their research, they believe that if leaders of conservative political parties were to reverse their stances on climate change, it would cause a significant change in the beliefs of their followers as well.

Unsworth, K. L., & Fielding, K. S. (2014). It’s political: How the salience of one’s political identity changes climate change beliefs and policy support. Global Environmental Change, 27, 131-137.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378014000909

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