Study Reveals Wavering In Conservative Climate Beliefs

New research on climate change beliefs shows that conservative Republicans are less certain of their views, with 41% of conservatives shifting their views at some point over the study period.

This piece was first published in Forbes on March 20, 2020. It is reprinted with their permission.

The state of Oklahoma has given rise to some of the nation’s most vociferous climate change skeptics in the persons of Senator James Inhofe and former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt.  Yet new research shows that rank and file Oklahoma conservatives are far less resolute in their denial of climate science than their political leaders, and are more likely to waver in their climate convictions than liberals.

The research, published this month in the journal Nature Climate Change, looked at the climate change beliefs of 1,380 Oklahomans who were surveyed quarterly from 2014 to 2018.  The researchers, from the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, asked respondents across the political spectrum whether they believed in anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, and how certain they were in their belief.   

The results showed that conservative Republicans, while less likely to view human activity as a driver of climate change, were also less certain of their views as reflected by variation in their response over the four year period.   

Fully 41% of conservatives shifted from being non-believers in anthropogenic climate change to believers — and often back — at some point over the study period.  Liberals’ views, in contrast, were both more stable and in line with scientific consensus on the role of human activity in climate change.  Just 19% of liberal Democrats flip-flopped at some point during the four years studied.

The report authors point out that the pattern of conservative uncertainty holds true beyond Oklahoma’s borders. 

“We were interested to see if national patterns on the left and right were similar, and they were,” says Hank Jenkins-Smith, senior author of the paper and director of the National Institute for Risk and Resilience at the University of Oklahoma.  The authors also collected a representative nationwide sample of data.  “Looking at the stated level of uncertainty, nationally the folks on the right are less likely to say they are certain than those on the left.”

The uncertainty among Republicans may be a response to an intensifying cognitive dissonance around climate change.  Conservative politicians like Inhofe have unwaveringly denied a human role in climate change, a position in stark opposition to scientific consensus.  Yet the survey found that rank and file conservatives who pay more attention to the issue of climate change showed the greatest instability in their climate convictions.  In contrast, liberals who closely followed climate news held some of the most stable views.

“Those on the right of the political spectrum, who are also are aware of the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is happening, showed the greatest flux in their views,” says Jenkins-Smith.  

“The cross-pressuring is part of what’s going on there.  If climate change was something they only occasionally considered it’s likely that their opinion would be less affected, they wouldn’t be running into these ideas.”

The findings also challenge the stereotyped perceptions that conservatives rigidly reject climate science. 

“I think it’s unfair to say they have their heads in the sand or that they’re ideologically locked,” says Jenkins-Smith.  “They’re struggling with this, and there is danger in making facile assumptions about what Republicans think about climate.”

The authors speculate that the biggest issue conservatives are struggling with may not be the reality of climate change itself, but rather climate solutions that tend to call for an expanded government role and are anathema to conservative values.  Increased regulation and taxation of certain industries, such as fossil fuels, is a prime example.

“It makes it very difficult for people who don’t like the solutions to admit that the problem exists,” says Jenkins-Smith.  “If you could come up with solutions that are acceptable, you might see greater willingness on the right to recognize climate change as a problem.”

It’s unclear whether the Oklahoma findings point to a coming tipping point in conservative opinion.  Republican attitudes did not grow more unstable over the four years studied.  In fact, attitudes seemed to cement slightly following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

If a tipping point is to come it might be facilitated by a generation of conservative leaders who both recognize anthropogenic climate change and also offer solutions to the problem that conservatives can swallow.  One Washington organization, ClearPath, offers a possible model in promoting “conservative policies that accelerate clean energy innovation” in the service of strengthening the economy.  Perhaps in a play for conservative palatability, the group’s website never mentions climate change.

In the meantime, Oklahoma remains an ideal place to study public attitudes on climate change, and not simply because of its red-state politics.  The state is home to the Oklahoma Mesonet, a vast environmental monitoring system that measures 362 weather-related variables at 120 data collecting stations across the state.  The granular data Mesonet collects allows researchers to correlate climate attitudes with actual environmental events in real time. 

The state is also bisected by the 100th meridian, which demarks the frontier between the United States’ forested East and drier West.  

As the center of the country has warmed, the meridian has been shifting to the East. 

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.