In the wake of the singularly unproductive COP15 Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, I have been reflecting on the polarisation of views on climate change along political lines. Whether or not human activity is leading to climate change is a question of scientific fact: it is either happening or it is not. So knowing someone’s politics should not help to predict their attitudes towards climate change, and yet it does.
It is not conclusive of course. Most people do believe that climate change is occurring and this includes people of a full range of political views. But, climate change skeptics seem to sit overwhelmingly on the right side of the political spectrum, while those most concerned about the effects of climate change are largely left of centre. Why is this?
Some would offer conspiracy theories to explain the dichotomy. The Australian Liberal senator Nick Minchin is an outspoken critic of climate change and in November last year he claimed that the left has been intentionally stirring up fears about global warming. While his comments elicited a storm of angry responses, including from his then party leader, Malcolm Turnbull, these views are widely held among skeptics. Indeed the controversy about climate change within the Liberal Party and its coalition partner the National Party was an important contributing factor to the downfall of Turnbull from his leadership position a few weeks later. For another conspiratorial slant, Ian Plimer regularly argues that academics are pushing the idea of climate change simply to help boost their research grant money.
At the same time, many on the left of politics are convinced that climate change skeptics are all stooges of “Big Oil” and closely monitor the flow of money from oil companies to individuals and organisations associated with climate change skepticism. Ironically, conspiracy theories tend to generate new conspiracy theories and some skeptics are now arguing that Big Oil is behind moves around the world to introduce emissions trading schemes.
Whether or not any of these theories are plausible, they are ultimately inadequate to explain the degree of left/right polarisation in the climate change debate. Most of the people I know who are concerned about climate change are not academics and are sufficiently hard-headed to be unlikely to have simply succumbed to scare-mongering. Equally, none of the people I know personally who are skeptical about climate change have ever received a single dollar from an oil company. So there is something left to explain.
I came across one promising line of thought while reading Risk by Dan Gardner, which was kindly lent to me by fellow blogger Neerav Bhatt. The book, subtitled “why we fear the things we shouldn’t – and put ourselves in greater danger”, examines the way that many of the techniques humans have evolved to make rapid decisions can lead to biases. These techniques are subconscious rules-of-thumb which psychologists refer to as “heuristics”, the study of which was pioneered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky*, among others. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink also explores the same ground, albeit in somewhat less academic terms.
Psychologists have identified many heuristics, such as the “availability heuristic”, which Gardner calls the “example rule”. People use this heuristic to determine how common something is based on how easy it is to recall examples of that thing. The easier it is to recall, the more common it must be and vice versa. This is an extremely reasonable rule of thumb to have hard-wired into the brain and no doubt useful out on the savanna, but it can trip us up.
Kahneman and Tversky illustrated this in many studies, including one** in which students were asked to think about words used in novels. They were told that four pages of a typical novel would contain about 2,000 words. They were then asked to estimate on average how many words in those four pages would have the form _ _ _ _ ing. The average estimate was 13.4 words. Another group was asked the same question, but for words of the form _ _ _ _ _ n _. This time the average estimate was only 4.7 words. This result is illogical because words of the form _ _ _ _ing comprise a subset of those of the form _ _ _ _ _ n _ and so should be less common not more so. The explanation lies in the fact that people find it far easier to recall words of the form _ _ _ _ing than words of the form _ _ _ _ _ n _. You can easily test this yourself by asking someone to think of as many _ _ _ _ _ n _ words as they can in 30 seconds and then do the same for _ _ _ _ing words. Odds are they will come up with far more the second time around.
So, this is a simple example of the availability heuristic leading us astray. Admittedly, it is an artificial example, tailor-made for the psychology laboratory. But there are many more practical examples of how the availability heuristic can lead to incorrect decisions. One example Gardner gives is the apparent paradox that in earthquake-prone regions many more people buy earthquake insurance when the odds of a quake are lowest (immediately after a quake when it is fresh in their memory) than when the odds are highest (when there has not been a quake to relieve the pressure for a long time).
The heuristic that may provide some insight into the polarisation of views on climate change is the “affect heuristic”. With this rule of thumb, we tend to associate good things with good things and bad things with bad things. Gardner calls the affect heuristic the “good-bad rule”. An example of the “bad” is the strong influence that the negative association many people have with nuclear weapons (particularly those who lived through the “mad” mutually assured destruction years of the cold war) has on the unpopularity of nuclear power. On the “good” side, people tend to associate sun-bathing with holidays, beaches and sun. This explains why it has proved so hard to get many people to have an aversion to tanning that in any way approaches the one that they have for nuclear power, despite the fact that far more people die from skin cancer than from nuclear accidents. The point here is not to argue in favour of nuclear power or to chastise those who like a little time in the sun. Rather, the affect heuristic explains how positive or negative associations can skew the assessment of risk.
So how can the affect heuristic help to explain attitudes to climate change? I would argue that a lot hinges on prior attitudes to a major source of carbon emissions: large-scale industry.
Even before the issue of climate change arose, many on the left, particularly those associated with the environmental movement, held a fairly dim view of big business, especially resources and power companies. If you were already suspicious of industrialisation, the first time you heard about climate change the affect heuristic would lead you to find it very likely that big business was messing up the world for everyone. On the other hand, people on the right of politics tend to hold the view that business is what has made human society as successful as it is today. All of the technology and other innovations that have delivered us our way of life have been stimulated by economic activity and, of course, much of that has been driven by large-scale industries. Needless to say, some personal enrichment whether through direct employment or investment in shares would also help to nurture a sanguine view of big business. Even without money channelled from Big Oil, the affect heuristic would tend to make such people far less receptive to the idea that the activity of industry could be harmful on a global scale.
People have many reasons for believing things, so this is unlikely to be the whole story. No doubt there are people on both sides of the debate whose motives and actions are not always pure. Nevertheless, for me the affect heuristic does provide a useful way of viewing the political polarisation of attitudes towards climate change.
* Kahneman and Tversky are best known for essentially inventing the fascinating field of behavioural economics, which I touched on in one of my earliest blog posts, “Why I Always Buy the Same Sandwich”.
** This study is described in Chapter 3 of Heuristics and Biases.