Study links US conspiracy theorists and climate change deniers

By Mark Lynas

May 8, 2018

The intense cultural polarization around climate change may be largely an American phenomenon, according to new research examining the links between conservative/liberal beliefs and climate skepticism across multiple countries.

The research also examines possible correlations between climate skepticism and belief in other conspiracy theories, such as the 9-11 attacks were an “inside job,” Princess Diana was murdered and the world is run by a “New World Order.”

While there was a significant correlation between conspiracy beliefs and climate skepticism in the United States sample, this was not the case in the other 24 countries studied.

The researchers — an Australian team led by Professor Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland (UQ) — draw the optimistic conclusion that there is “little inherent to conspiratorial ideation or conservative ideologies that predisposes people to reject climate science, a finding that has encouraging implications for climate mitigation efforts globally.”

As Hornsey explained: “This suggests that ideological barriers to accepting science don’t emerge from people spontaneously critiquing scientific consensus through the lens of their world views. Rather, ideological barriers to accepting science can also be encouraged by influential individuals and organizations who have a vested interest in communicating that the science is wrong.”

Hornsey said he was inspired to study the relationship between conspiracist thinking and climate skepticism by a Tweet from President Donald Trump claiming that climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing uncompetitive.

“We found that the more Americans believed conspiracies generally, the more they also thought that climate change was a hoax,” Hornsey concluded. However, “This relationship was not found in the vast majority of countries.”

Intriguingly, the researchers did find another correlation, this one between the dependency of a country on fossil fuels — and its resulting high per-capita carbon emissions — and climate skepticism, suggesting that perhaps fossil fuel industry vested interests could be skewing political conversations in some nations.

“We found that in approximately 75 percent of the countries surveyed, conservatives didn’t show any more skepticism of climate change than other people,” Hornsey revealed.

However, while “countries with relatively low levels of carbon emissions showed no relationship between conservatism and climate scepticism,” those nations “with high levels of emissions — including America and Australia –—showed a stronger link.”

According to Hornsey, “One possible reason is that conservatives in countries with high carbon emissions have more of a vested interest in rejecting climate science, due to the fossil fuel industry’s investment in that country.”

Hornsey and colleagues from UQ’s School of Psychology and School of Communication and Arts surveyed 5,323 people across 25 countries to analyze the link between climate scepticism and political conservatism.

Published in Nature Climate Change, the study was a collaboration between Hornsey and PhD student Emily Harris from UQ’s School of Psychology, and Associate Professor Kelly Fielding from UQ’s School of Communication and Arts.