The cheese argues alone —
Surveying 25 countries shows one of them is not like the others.
In the US, partisan political lines define a debate about climate change that does not exist among climate scientists. It has been this way long enough that you could be forgiven for thinking that rejecting the human cause of climate change is somehow inherently conservative. But few countries beyond the US are actually having this debate despite—and this is true—being home to their own politically conservative citizens.
To find out what’s going on, Matthew Hornsey, Emily Harris, and Kelly Fielding of the University of Queensland in Australia surveyed 5,323 people in 25 countries. And the results confirmed that the US really is the weird one.
The survey asked respondents to answer questions that allowed them to be placed on four different political scales: left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, individualist vs. communitarian, and hierarchical vs. egalitarian. They were also asked about a handful of conspiracy theories to test a separate connection between conspiratorial thinking and the idea that climate science is a vast hoax.
The results showed that the United States was the only country with a statistically significant correlation between all four political scales and climate opinions. In other words, placing yourself on a political spectrum provides a strong predictor of how you’ll answer questions about climate change—but only if you’re an American. The same was true for US conspiracy theorists, although a few other countries had similar correlations, including Singapore.
For political ideology, a couple other countries were within shouting distance of the US. Australia and Canada had statistically significant (but weaker) correlations on three of the four scales. Brazil comes next, with correlations on two of the four scales. Despite hosting some prominent and politically active climate “skeptics,” the UK actually had zero significant correlations.
The researchers note that Australia, Canada, Brazil, and the US have something in common—they are among the highest in greenhouse gas emissions per person. This could be a coincidence, but the researchers say that “it may be that per capita carbon emissions is a proxy for vested interests around climate change, both collectively (in terms of the fossil fuel industry’s investment in that country) and individually (in terms of the perceived sacrifices and changes that citizens feel they need to make to live a low-carbon lifestyle).”
The differences between countries tell us that climate “skepticism” is essentially a cultural phenomenon rather than inherent to certain political ideologies. As research like that done by the Cultural Cognition Project has shown, cultural identities became entangled with climate change in the United States—something that hasn’t happened with most other scientific topics. How does that entanglement happen? It seems to involve cultural leaders pushing an idea that can take hold throughout that cultural group. For most topics, there’s nobody influential pushing these ideas, so they fail to “go viral.”
To the researchers, that’s encouraging—or at least more encouraging than the alternative. There are only a few countries where climate science is truly tangled up with political identities, and the US is the exception rather than the rule. In most places, conservative political groups are just as likely as liberal ones to want to do something about climate change.