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Appeals to caring and fairness alone can't bridge climate divide

  • 02 February 2017


The election of Trump highlights the extreme political polarisation in the United States, and few issues are as tribal as climate change. From near bipartisanship in the 1970s, views on global warming among Republicans and Democrats diverged in the 1980s and widened into a chasm under Obama.

A Pew survey before the 2016 US election found 66 per cent of Clinton supporters said climate change was 'a very big problem', but only 14 per cent of Trump voters. This partisan divide has been remarkably stable, and it's resistant to education levels. A study by Yale psychologist Daniel Kahan shows people who score higher in scientific literacy and numeracy are actually more culturally polarised about climate change.

In Australia, we're not quite at this level of entrenched division, but political ideology still plays a role. From 2010-2014 the CSIRO surveyed Australians about their attitudes to climate change and found people with more left-wing orientations were 'more likely to be sure climate change was happening, were more worried about it, and thought it more important'. ALP voters were more likely to believe climate change was human caused than Liberal voters.

So what's going on?

Kahan, who leads Yale's Cultural Cognition Project in the US, argues that the environment in which climate science is communicated has become 'polluted' with 'toxic partisan meanings'. 'Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is.' They're a badge of belonging, and we tend to conform with the views of our chosen clique.

If climate change were a short-term problem, polarisation wouldn't be so crippling. One side could push a solution through parliament, and by the time the other side took power it might be a non-issue.

But climate change is an extraordinarily long-term problem that requires massive investment in new infrastructure and consistent policy settings over many decades. It needs a supermajority of support so years of work isn't undone with each change of government. That means getting conservatives on board.

But how? Climate change has become largely a symbol of the Left. This was partly unavoidable. It's a natural fit with the progressive narrative of reform, the one that says our Western industrial way of life has deep flaws and needs a major overhaul.


"When progressives finally realised they needed a more morally compelling argument, they chose messages that were morally compelling to them: a focus on vulnerable victims, and equality."


Carbon dioxide spreads through the atmosphere, ignoring arbitrary national