Lecture addresses political identities of climate change

On Wednesday March 6, Aaron McCright, associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University, delivered a lecture titled, “Climate Change Denial and Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States.”

The lecture was sponsored by the department of political science and international relations and was organized by Department Chair and professor Jeffrey Koch, who introduced McCright.

McCright began by defining the term “organized climate change denial,” which he described as “rejecting the reality of climate change and/or challenging its status as a problem deserving a solution.”

He then focused on the sources, motivations, strategies and effectiveness behind this phenomenon. The sources of denial he referenced include fossil fuel organizations, national business associations and conservative foundations or think tanks.

“Some of these organizations and individuals are protecting their economic interest, whether direct or indirect, some, and a growing number are promoting disbelief in climate change now because of a very strong belief in a free market economy,” McCright said. “What better way to accomplish their goals than to deny climate change is happening?”

To encourage disbelief, he said fossil fuel organizations manufacture uncertainty, undermine science and misinform the public.

McCright said he sees these strategies as highly effective and referenced federal policy gridlock as proof. He then expanded upon his most current research on climate change denial as related to political party or ideology.

His first research question examines to what extent liberals and conservatives in the American public differ in beliefs and concerns about global warming.

“There is strong evidence of a sizable and enduring divide between liberals and conservatives in the general public,” McCright said.

According to his research, 68 percent of liberals and 42 percent of conservatives believe that the effects of global warming have already begun.

His second question focused on the fluidity of that divide, asking if the two parties’ ideologies have become more polarized in recent years.

McCright said his study shows the divide beginning to expand around 2007. He offered various reasons for this, including President Barack Obama’s run for president, the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth and the rise of the Tea Party movement; however, he said that none of these things could be solely responsible.

In the conclusion of his lecture, McCright asked to what extent political orientation “moderates or filters the effects of educational attainment and perceived understanding on global warming beliefs and concern.”

He found a “moderating effect” which showed that more liberals who attain a higher education believe in global warming than those without an education, whereas conservatives who attain higher education believe in global warming in smaller numbers than their uneducated counterparts.

He added that he found that conservative white males who are confident in their knowledge about global warming are the least likely of any subgroup of people to believe in climate change or its effects.

McCright said that one of the implications of this is that public education about climate change might not be the answer, and further, that policy makers should perhaps focus less on converting individuals and more on making convincing economic arguments, alternative energy sources or other conservation measures.

“What’s hard is to mobilize forces to take action when people are perceiving messages very differently,” he said.