Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Public division about climate change rooted in conflicting socio-political identities

Abstract

Of the climate science papers that take a position on the issue, 97% agree that climate change is caused by humans1, but less than half of the US population shares this belief2. This misalignment between scientific and public views has been attributed to a range of factors, including political attitudes, socio-economic status, moral values, levels of scientific understanding, and failure of scientific communication. The public is divided between climate change 'believers' (whose views align with those of the scientific community) and 'sceptics' (whose views are in disagreement with those of the scientific community). We propose that this division is best explained as a socio-political conflict between these opposing groups. Here we demonstrate that US believers and sceptics have distinct social identities, beliefs and emotional reactions that systematically predict their support for action to advance their respective positions. The key implication is that the divisions between sceptics and believers are unlikely to be overcome solely through communication and education strategies, and that interventions that increase angry opposition to action on climate change are especially problematic. Thus, strategies for building support for mitigation policies should go beyond attempts to improve the public’s understanding of science, to include approaches that transform intergroup relations.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Structural model for believers.
Figure 2: Structural model for sceptics.

References

  1. 1

    Cook, J. et al. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 1–7 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Middle East Publics Less Concerned about Climate Change than those in Other Nations (Pew Research Centre, 2013); http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/11/11/u-s-middle-east-less-concerned-about-climate-change-than-those-in-other-nations/

  3. 3

    Survey Analysis Contradicts Common Climate Perception (Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, 2013); https://woods.stanford.edu/news-events/news/survey-analysis-contradicts-common-climate-perceptions

  4. 4

    Contestabile, M. Americans’ views. Nature Clim. Change 4, 86 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Whitmarsh, L. Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: Dimensions, determinants and change overtime. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 690–700 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Feinberg, M. & Willer, R. The moral roots of environmental attitudes. Psychol. Sci. 24, 56–62 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    McCright, A. M. & Dunlap, R. E. The politicization of climate change: Political polarization in the American public’s views of global warming. Sociol. Q. 52, 155–194 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Hoffman, A. J. The growing climate divide. Nature Clim. Change 1, 195–196 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Malka, A., Krosnick, J. A. & Langer, G. The association of knowledge with concern about global warming: Trusted information sources shape public thinking. Risk Anal. 29, 633–647 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Weber, E. U. & Stern, P. C. Public understanding of climate change in the United States. Am. Psychol. 66, 315–328 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Myers, T. A. et al. The relationship between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming. Nature Clim. Change 3, 343–347 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Zaval, L. et al. How warm days increase belief in global warming. Nature Clim. Change 4, 143–147 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Brownstein, R. GOP gives climate science a cold shoulder. Nat. J. 42, 41–52 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Dunlap, R. E. & McCright, A. M. A widening gap: Republican and Democratic views on climate change. Environment 50, 26–35 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Jacques, P. J., Dunlap, R. E. & Freeman, M. The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism. Environ. Pollut. 17, 349–385 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Brulle, R. J., Carmichael, J. & Jenkins, J. C. Shifting public opinion on climate change: An empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the US, 2002–2010. Climatic Change 114, 169–188 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Moser, S. C. Communicating climate change: History, challenges, process and future directions. WIREs Clim. Change 1, 31–53 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Leiserowitz, A. et al. Global Warming’s Six Americas (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    McGarty, C. et al. Collective action as the material expression of opinion-based group membership. J. Soc. Issues 65, 839–857 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    van Zomeren, M., Postmes, T. & Spears, R. Toward an integrative social identity model of collective action: A quantitative research synthesis of three socio-psychological perspectives. Psychol. Bull. 134, 504–535 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Thomas, E. F., McGarty, C. & Mavor, K. I. Aligning identities, emotions, and beliefs to create commitment to sustainable social and political action. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 13, 194–218 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Postmes, T., Rabinovich, A., Morton, T. & van Zomeren, M. in Encouraging Sustainable Behaviour (ed. van Trijp, H. C. M.) 185–202 (Psych. Press, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    van Zomeren, M., Spears, R. & Leach, C. W. Experimental evidence for a dual pathway model analysis of coping with the climate crisis. J. Environ. Psychol. 30, 339–346 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Duncan, L. E. in The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology (eds Deaux, K. & Snyder, M.) 781–803 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Haidt, J. The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science 316, 998–1002 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Koleva, S. et al. Tracing the threads: How five moral concerns (especially Purity) help explain culture war attitudes. J. Res. Pers. 46, 184–194 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Bulbulia, J., Osborne, D. & Sibley, C. G. Moral foundations predict religious orientations in New Zealand. PLoS ONE 8, e80224 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Poortinga, W. et al. Uncertain climate: An investigation into public scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 1015–1024 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    McCright, A. M. Political orientation moderates Americans’ beliefs and concern about climate change. Climatic Change 104, 243–253 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge support from the Australian Research Council through funding for the Discovery project ‘Pathways to social cohesion and social change: Opinion-based groups and the dynamic formation of identities’ (DP110100046, awarded to C.M. and A-M.B.) and Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DE120101029) ‘Mass generosity as collective action’ (awarded to E.F.T.).

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

A-M.B. and C.M. contributed to study design, statistical analyses and writing. E.F.T. contributed to study design and writing. G.L. contributed to study design, data management and writing. M.B. and R.M. contributed to interpreting the findings and writing. All authors commented on the paper and participated in the process of refinement of the paper in response to the peer reviews.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ana-Maria Bliuc.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bliuc, AM., McGarty, C., Thomas, E. et al. Public division about climate change rooted in conflicting socio-political identities. Nature Clim Change 5, 226–229 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2507

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing