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How the Tea Party changed the climate debate

at 01:12 PM ET, 09/07/2011


(Steve Pope/Getty Images)
Has belief in global warming become a purely partisan affair? It certainly looks that way: Most of the major Republican presidential candidates, save for the doomed Jon Huntsman, now say they don’t believe humans are warming the planet. The going theory is that they’re just representing their party. But the going theory might be wrong.

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released a new survey today finding that the bulk of climate skepticism on the right comes from a relatively small slice of conservatives — and even their beliefs are more nuanced than one might suspect.

The Yale survey divvied up respondents into Democrats, Republicans, independents, and Tea Partiers. Self-identified Tea Party types make up just 12 percent of the country, but they tend to be the fiercest global-warming deniers: “Majorities of Democrats (78%), Independents (71%) and Republicans (53%) believe that global warming is happening. By contrast, only 34 percent of Tea Party members believe global warming is happening, while 53 percent say it is not happening.”

Even though their views are at odds with the vast majority of climate scientists, Tea Partiers are also by far the most confident in their beliefs — more likely to say they are “very well informed” and that they “do not need any more information about global warming.” Note that this dovetails with earlier research finding that when you give those dismissive of global warming more information, it only serves to harden their doubts.

Tea Party types are also much, much more likely to have tracked the ins and outs of Climategate (a 2009 uproar over some pilfered and subsequently misinterpreted e-mails from a small research unit in Britain) than anyone else in America. A lot of commentators have suggested that Climategate sowed doubts about the integrity of climatologists among the broader public, but the affair mostly just appears to have fortified the resolve of a small cadre of deniers.

Yet even though climate skeptics constitute a minority of the population, they can still have a disproportionate impact. Researchers on cognitive social networks at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently found that “when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.” It’s easy to think of counterexamples here (did the small core of birthers really win majority support?), but there does seem to be a tipping point at which a minority idea catches on broadly. The minority just has to believe what it believes with a fervent intensity.

Interestingly, though, the Yale survey also found that even the climate skeptics among us often support stereotypically “green” policies:

Highly popular: An international treaty on carbon emissions and a policy to require electric utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Highly popular even among Tea Party types: research and subsidies for renewable sources. Of course, this support could prove floppy once tested. Tea Partiers, for one, seem prone to getting whipped into outrage over seemingly uncontroversial green policies — note that “Tea Party members are more than twice as likely than any other group to say they don’t want to change the light bulbs in their house to energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights.”

 
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