Partisan asymmetry in temporal stability of climate change beliefs

Abstract

Existing literature on climate change beliefs in the US suggests that partisan polarization begets climate change polarization and that the climate beliefs of those on both sides of the partisan divide are firmly held and invariable. Here, we use data from a large panel survey of Oklahoma residents administered quarterly from 2014 through 2018 to challenge this perspective. Contrary to the expectation of rough symmetry in partisan polarization on climate change, we find that partisans on the political right have much more unstable beliefs about climate change than partisans on the left. An important implication is that if climate beliefs are well anchored on the left, but less so on the right, the latter are more susceptible to change. We interpret this to suggest that, despite polarizing elite rhetoric, public beliefs about climate change maintain the potential to shift towards broader acceptance and a perceived need for action.

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Fig. 1: Aggregate beliefs about climate change among Oklahoma panellists.
Fig. 2: The distribution of variation in panellist’s beliefs about climate change.
Fig. 3: Time-series trends in sample panellist’s beliefs about climate change.
Fig. 4: Influence of ideology and partisanship on variation in climate change beliefs.
Fig. 5: Influence of salience and cues from scientists on variation in climate change beliefs.

Data availability

M-SISNet data and metadata are available at: http://crcm.ou.edu/epscordata/.

Code availability

R code for the current study is available on GitHub: https://github.com/ripberjt/msisnet.

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Acknowledgements

This study is based on work supported by the National Science foundation under grant no. OIA-1301789. The authors thank M. Henderson, A. Goodin and the University of Oklahoma Public Opinion Learning Laboratory (OU POLL) for their help with survey implementation and data collection.

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Contributions

All authors contributed to the design of the study. H.J-S., C.S., J.R., and N.C. contributed to data collection. J.R., H.J-S., and D.C. conducted the data analysis. All authors contributed to writing and editing the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Hank C. Jenkins-Smith or Joseph T. Ripberger.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Lawrence Hamilton and the other, anonymous, reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Comparison of predicted certainty of climate change beliefs of Oklahoma panelists with a cross-section of US adults.

Points indicate conditional mean estimates from linear regression models with covariates in the models set to their average values. Panel (a) shows these estimates by political ideology and (b) shows them by political party. N-sizes are 1,353 for Oklahoma and 1,673 for the US in (a) and 1,353 for Oklahoma and 1,771 for the US in (b). Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 2 Distribution of variation in panelist’s beliefs about climate change by wave count.

Wave count indicates the number of quarterly surveys panelists completed, ranging from 2+ surveys (n=2,115) to all 16 surveys (n=614). Source data

Extended Data Fig. 3 Prediction of variation in panelist’s beliefs about climate change by wave count.

Points indicate coefficient estimates from models comparable the one shown in Table 1, but the samples used vary by the number of quarterly surveys panelists completed, ranging from 2+ surveys (n=2,097) to all 16 surveys (n=612). Coefficients shown in panel (a) correspond to column 1 in Table 1; (b) corresponds to column 2 in Table 1; and c, corresponds to column 3 in Table 1. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 4 Distribution of variation in panelist’s beliefs about climate change.

Proportion of panelists (n = 1,380) at each value of within-subject root mean square of successive differences (RMSSD). Percentages indicate the percent of panelists in each bin marked with a red dotted line. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 5 Time series trends in sample panelist’s beliefs about climate change.

Belief in climate change for random samples of 25 panelists with (a) stable beliefs (RMSSD < 1); 18% of the full sample; (b) somewhat stable beliefs (1 < RMSSD < 2); 22% of the full sample; (c) somewhat unstable beliefs (2 < RMSSD < 3); 12% of the full sample; and (d) unstable beliefs (RMSSD> 3); 48% of the full sample. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 6 Influence of ideology and partisanship on variation in climate change beliefs.

Conditional mean estimates of within-subject RMSSD for (a) political ideology and (b) political party when the covariates in the linear regression models are set to their average values. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. N-sizes are 1,374 for (a) and 1,353 for (b). Source data

Extended Data Fig. 7 The Effects of Salience and Cues from Scientists on variation in climate change beliefs.

Points indicate mean estimates of within-subject RMSSD for (a) issue salience and (b) cues from scientists for panelists identifying as Democrat. For (a), n size for Democrats is 330 and for Republicans is 459. For (b), n size for Democrats is 331 and for Republicans is 464 . Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 8 Influence of ideology and partisanship on variation in beliefs that climate change is or is not occurring.

Conditional estimates of the probability of at least one change in beliefs for (a) political ideology and (b) political party when the covariates in the linear regression models are set to their average values. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. N-sizes are 1,374 for (a) and 1,353 for (b). Source data

Extended Data Fig. 9 Influence of the 2016 US election on variation in climate change beliefs.

Points indicate mean estimates of within-subject standard deviation based on (a) political ideology and (b) political party before the 2016 US election (n=1,368) and after the 2016 US election (n=1,345). Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 10 Influence of ideology and partisanship on survey variability.

Conditional mean estimates of survey variability for (a) political ideology and (b) political party when the covariates in the linear regression models are set to their average values. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals. N-sizes are 1,374 for (a) and 1,353 for (b). Source data

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Jenkins-Smith, H.C., Ripberger, J.T., Silva, C.L. et al. Partisan asymmetry in temporal stability of climate change beliefs. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 322–328 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0719-y

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