Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: Trumping the Evidence: Political Conformity, Attitude Formation, and Global Climate Change Policy

Friday, November 13, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Marc D. Weiner, Rutgers University - New Brunswick
I am concerned with the ways different political identifiers perceive and position themselves in the policy discourse on global climate change. I believe that process inhibits the development of a coherent national climate policy. However, if we better understand how different political stakeholders process climate information, we will be better positioned to craft climate policy that sustains popular support across party identification.

In terms of proofs, an empirical baseline is drawn from an original large-N survey of New Jersey residents within six months of Superstorm Sandy. Basic survey data modeling reveals that attitude formation is significantly more complex for those who accept, rather than deny, the evidence of global climate change. The first pivot on those data is the comparison between group conformity in opinion as a norm and other variables that might predict that attitude. Such conformity in opinion, based on the non-evidential acceptance of group norms is, empirically, stronger in conservative than in liberal contexts.

The dependent variable is an index, a linear measure factor-scaled from four attitude probes on “global climate change.” When regressed on measures of political identification, measures of institutional trust, sex, and degree of exposure, if any, to extreme weather in a hierarchical OLS regression, the model fits the data well (F=42.68; p=0.000; R-squared=0.38), despite non-random error variance, skewing toward “acceptance,” rather than “denial,” of the evidence of global climate change.

When the data are split on whether the respondent is a global climate change accepter or denier, the model fit changes dramatically: for accepters (N=570), R-squared=0.29; for deniers, 0.43 (N=127), i.e., a 48% increase. For deniers, only two variables—Republican party identification and the degree of belief (or not) that “the international scientific community understands the science behind global climate change”—were statistically significant. For those who accept the fact of an anthropogenic contribution to global climate change, the result is more nuanced. Beyond party identification and trust in scientists, the model estimates two additional variables as statistically significant: trust in the media, and, a high level of recall of personal exposure to hurricane-like, extreme weather conditions.

These models are evidence that global climate change attitude formation is driven more by an Asch-like paradigm of group-reinforcing-confirmation, acted out through elite policy cues, social cohesion, and political messaging, than by the alternative, unmediated and impliedly greater-informed, a first-person assessment of available and accessible scientific evidence, or first person exposure to extreme weather that popular discourse often attributes to climate change, such as Sandy.

This work will more precisely inform the debate, within the discourse on global climate change policy on mitigation versus adaptation. By understanding different methods of assessing the evidence of global climate change, policymakers will be better able to understand the echo chamber nature of much of public opinion on global climate change. In turn, analysts will be better able to understand the role that the assessment of scientific evidence plays in the public opinion that supports national and subnational global climate change policies.