Tuesday, 11 November 2014 00:00

How ‘Solution Aversion’ and Global Warming Prescriptions Polarize the Climate Debate

Written by  Andrew C. Revkin | The New York Times
How ‘Solution Aversion’ and Global Warming Prescriptions Polarize the Climate Debate Andrew C. Revkin
Anyone eager to understand, and move past, the deep political polarization around global warming would do well to explore the findings in “Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief,” published in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The paper is behind a subscription wall, but a Duke University news release does a fine job laying out the basic findings, as does Chris Mooney, getting into gear in his new blogging position at the Washington Post. Here’s an excerpt from the Duke release, followed by more from Mooney and some thoughts from me on how this work echoes points explored here for many years:

From the release:

A new study from Duke University finds that people will evaluate scientific evidence based on whether they view its policy implications as politically desirable. If they don’t, then they tend to deny the problem even exists.

“Logically, the proposed solution to a problem, such as an increase in government regulation or an extension of the free market, should not influence one’s belief in the problem. However, we find it does,” said co-author Troy Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. “The cure can be more immediately threatening than the problem.”…

“The goal was to test, in a scientifically controlled manner, the question: Does the desirability of a solution affect beliefs in the existence of the associated problem? In other words, does what we call ‘solution aversion’ exist?” Campbell said.

“We found the answer is yes. And we found it occurs in response to some of the most common solutions for popularly discussed problems.”…

For climate change, the researchers conducted an experiment to examine why more Republicans than Democrats seem to deny its existence, despite strong scientific evidence that supports it.

One explanation, they found, may have more to do with conservatives’ general opposition to the most popular solution — increasing government regulation — than with any difference in fear of the climate change problem itself, as some have proposed.

Participants in the experiment, including both self-identified Republicans and Democrats, read a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century. They were then asked to evaluate a proposed policy solution to address the warming.

When the policy solution emphasized a tax on carbon emissions or some other form of government regulation, which is generally opposed by Republican ideology, only 22 percent of Republicans said they believed the temperatures would rise at least as much as indicated by the scientific statement they read.

But when the proposed policy solution emphasized the free market, such as with innovative green technology, 55 percent of Republicans agreed with the scientific statement.

For Democrats, the same experiment recorded no difference in their belief, regardless of the proposed solution to climate change.

The study, according to Duke, found a similar pattern in liberal-leaning gun-control proponents when judging data on certain violent crimes:

The researchers found liberal-leaning individuals exhibited a similar aversion to solutions they viewed as politically undesirable in an experiment involving violent home break-ins. When the proposed solution called for looser versus tighter gun-control laws, those with more liberal gun-control ideologies were more likely to downplay the frequency of violent home break-ins.

On Twitter earlier today, Dan Kahan of Yale University (please read Paul Voosen’s profile of him!) noted how the findings align with conclusions from this 2012 study: “Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization: Testing a Two-channel Model of Science Communication.”

I encourage you to read Chris Mooney’s piece on the new research in the context of other behavioral work. It’s aptly titled, “Conservatives don’t hate climate science. They hate the left’s climate solutions.”

Mooney concludes with this point:

[I]t is very useful to bear in mind that often, when we appear to be debating science and facts, what we’re really disagreeing about is something very different.

For many years, some of the most prominent climate campaigners and activist climate scientists have had the habit of mashing up climate science findings and their preferred solutions — a habit that I’ve long seen as counterproductive.

I encourage you to look back at my 2011 post on the perils in mashing up “basic science with policy prescriptions”:

It’s hard to see disengaged citizens swayed by a conversation that, in one instance this afternoon, swung from discussions of greenhouse physics by NASA’s Drew Shindell to Tara DePorte of the Human Impacts Institute saying, “We need strong global governance.”

This is the same trap that climate campaigners, and some climate scientists, have fallen into for years, to my mind -– mashing up climate science and pre-selected energy solutions in one conversation, sometimes a single sentence….

Here’s more from 2009:

Kenneth Caldeira, a climate specialist whom I’ve interviewed about ocean acidification, geo-engineering, climate tipping points and other questions, says there is substantial peril in “describing policy prescriptions as if they’re a scientific conclusion.”

But there are positive lessons here, too, of course. As the “Six Americas” surveys run by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication have shown, there’s plenty of common ground on energy innovation and incentives for efficiency, so it’s possible to have a constructive conversation on global warming science and at least some solutions across a range of ideologies.

[Insert, Nov. 11, 12:03 p.m. | Brad Plumer at Vox explores a climate policy that conservatives, at least in theory, should like -- a revenue-neutral carbon tax.]

And, of course, this doesn’t mean that those with strong views about the merits of a carbon tax or climate treaty or other solution involving strong governance should clam up. They just might do better by speaking in two sentences instead of trying to mash the science and a particular prescription into a single sound bite.

Link to the original article from The New York Times.

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