Here’s an interesting study by Lawrence Hamilton, published in Climatic Change in December: “Education, politics and opinions about climate change evidence for interaction effects“. He finds that whereas in the past, education level strongly correlated with concern for environmental issues, this correlation has now gone away because of a new interaction effect with political beliefs. (Which is consistent with other recent research, e.g. see the work of Kahan and Braman).
From his survey of people in New Hampshire and Rural Michigan, Hamilton identified strong Democrats and Strong Republicans, and discovered that, with respect to climate change, there is a significant interaction effect between education and party support, and another between how well people believe they understand climate change and party support:
[I can't help noticing there's no data points for "Strong Republicans" who say they don't understand global warming at all!]
Here’s what Hamilton has to say about the findings:
“The inconsistency marks a social shift away from patterns seen in older research. It reflects the efficacy of media campaigns that provide scientific-sounding arguments against taking climate change seriously, which disproportionately reach educated but ideologically receptive audiences [...]. Among many educated, conservative citizens, it appears that that such arguments have overshadowed the scientific consensus presented by the IPCC reports and other core science sources.”
Hamilton puts a significant part of the explanation for this shift on internet and cable TV as sources of information, which increasingly allow people to tune into only those sources that they find ideologically compatible, and the ability of these sources to propagate politically inspired but scientific-sounding arguments:
“The effective dissemination of contrarian arguments means that many people who have no contact with climate scientists or the primary research literature can nevertheless learn that a scientist says temperatures have risen on Mars (politically spun as evidence that global warming has solar or cosmic origins), or another scientist says it is cooling in East Antarctica (spun as evidence that our planet is not warming after all). They might consider themselves well informed about climate science even while not understanding its basic ideas.”
And he concludes that having more scientists getting involved in blogs and rapid response initiatives is crucial:
“If non-specialists want to find out what scientists really know about temperature trends of Mars and East Antarctica, or other arguments aired in today’s news or last night’s party, they are best served by a relatively small number of active-response Web sites written by climate scientists, such as Realclimate.org. Unlike journal articles, science meetings or reports, Web sites and blogs have the capability to react quickly (albeit less rigorously), reach broader audiences, and seriously confront arguments that have no scientific merit. Moreover, their online science posts can be passed on from reader to reader, which is difficult to do with journal articles or technical reports.”
[Hat tip to Sol for sending me this]
Update: It appears to also matter whether it’s called “Climate Change” or “Global Warming”, at least to Republicans, who are more likely to believe in the former rather than the latter.