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Dismal: The polarization of climate debate depresses believers: The solution they all miss

It’s “depressing”, “hopeless” and “dismal”

The climate debate is more polarised than ever. David Roberts at Vox is very honest about the challenges believers face to solve the deep partisan political divide. But despite all the grants and funding to solve this problem, the experts miss the obvious. I explain below why polarization will solve itself. Indeed, all their best efforts to reduce polarization in the climate debate are creating the polarization. It takes a sustained effort and millions of dollars to keep a false belief alive.

Now Dunlap and McCright (along with Oklahoma State’s Jerrod Yarosh) have updated their study, giving us a fresh look at public opinion on climate change at the end of the Obama era.

The findings are dismal, if not very surprising: Polarization only accelerated after 2008, the gap between the parties is wider than ever, and the trend shows no sign of stopping.

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) scores politicians. It tracks the voting records of members of Congress. Way back in 1970 both sides of politics wanted to approve environmental legislation about equally.

Public opinion has a similar trend. Here are Gallup poll results since 1997. (The recent up-spike in Republican “belief” was recorded in March this year and is probably due to the record warmest US winter thanks to the El Nino. I expect that to revert to trend next year.)

Graph, Climate Change debate, Gallup poll, 1997 -2016. Political party, Republican, Democrat.

Feel the pain as experts hunt in vain to solve the split

The experts and paid up researchers are scratching their heads trying to think of everything to fix this. But they miss the most obvious solution completely:

Hopes for reducing polarization are mostly forlorn

There are three sources of hope for reducing polarization in the short term. Dunlap et. al. shoot them all down.

The first is education — better informing the public about climate science. The much-derided “information deficit model” has proven a failure in practice. “Two decades of news coverage and educational campaigns since 1997 have produced only modest increases in Americans’ belief in the reality and human cause of climate change, with gains among Democrats often offset by declines among Republicans,” the authors write.

After three decades of propaganda, more propaganda pushes skeptics away. Badgering people with the 97% consensus only reminds them of how pathetically political and unscientific this debate is. Faking it up to a 99% consensus makes it worse. The consensus message only works on those prone to “follow the herd” and those people have all been reached already.

The second is better “framing,” pitching climate to conservatives in terms more likely to appeal to their values — climate as a national security threat, or an economic opportunity, or a threat to God’s covenant. However, dozens of studies have found small or negligible effects from these strategies. “The evidence so far gives little basis for optimism,” they conclude.

Lipstick on a pig. The problem is the pig, not the lipstick.

The third is personal experiences with extreme weather events, which, it is often hoped, will drive home the reality of climate change. But what evidence exists shows that such experiences have little-to-no effect on climate beliefs, especially among committed partisans. People interpret their experiences through their preexisting worldviews. “Again,” Dunlap et. al. write, “the evidence thus far does not provide much support for optimism.”

Extreme weather events have no scientific justification as “proof” of man-made climate change. Believers are stooping to falsely and unscientifically preying on people’s innate tendency to find patterns which are not real. This is about as low as any science communicator can get, but despite scraping this barrel, believers can still not win.

The blindingly simple answer — why polarization will resolve itself

The good news for Dunlap, McRight, Roberts, etc is that polarization is going to resolve — but the lines are trending to zero, not 100.

The bigger truth they all miss is that polarization will only end when politics matches reality. This science debate starts and ends with empirical evidence, not consensus’s or “framing” or the emotional ploy of random big storms. The empirical evidence shows the climate models are wrong, the hot spot “fingerprint” was never there, the predictions have failed. The model architecture is missing a whole class of feedbacks. The Sun is probably controlling the climate through its effect on clouds with dynamic magnetic fluxes, solar winds, or spectral changes.

Currently it’s taking a billion dollars of propaganda to keep the Democrat belief so high, so far from reality.

Climate Change polarisation will resolve, Jo Nova, projection.

Reality will bite, and sooner or later the public will all realize that like the fear of Witches, the man-made  climate crisis was overblown, exaggerated, based on poor data, badly managed and overrun with political self interest and confirmation bias.

When will the polarisation resolve? It depends on the US election:

 “Whether, and how, individual Americans vote this November,” Dunlap et. al. write, “may well be the most consequential climate-related decision most of them will have ever taken.”

Trump would give voice to the part of the herd that is closer to reality (ie. observations by satellites, weather balloons, etc etc). As this side of the debate is finally aired, and funding is turned down for propaganda, the followers will gradually follow – and herd-thinkers will shift towards the new more dominant herd position. If Clinton wins, the propaganda will keep the tribal split alive for longer.

The researchers can always find faux scientificy reasons to support their own confirmation bias:

Skepticism toward climate change and hostility toward climate policy have been yoked to conservative identity. To reject them is to risk rejecting that identity and harming the social relationships that come with it. And most people have much stronger commitment to their core identity than they do to any individual political issue.

Just as skepticism has become yoked to conservative identity — hostility, namecalling and religious climate fervour have become yoked to Democrat identity.

What happens when scientists “stop reasoning like a scientist”?

Once an issue has been yoked to our core identities, we stop reasoning like scientists (gathering evidence, seeing where it leads) and start reasoning like lawyers (start with a conclusion, work backward to build a case). Yale psychologist Dan Kahan calls it“motivated reasoning”— “the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs.” In this case, the “end or goal” is preserving commitments core to identity.

Dan Kahan, Dunlap and McCright are all their own case study in motivated reasoning. They simply cannot process the possibility that the groupthink is wrong. It mars all their research, stopping them from even considering the possibility that the “motivated” reasoning is a bigger badder problem on the side driven by irrational fear and herd behaviour and backed by gazillions of dollars.

As a former Green my motivated reasoning was to find evidence to support the theory of a man-made crisis, but the harder I looked the less I found. Some of us can overcome that confirmation bias. Why won’t psychologists research that?


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