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.