For a long time, people have been using words like “polarizing” and “partisan” to describe the debate over climate change. Last week, I added “brutal and dysfunctional” to the descriptive pile.
But according to new research just out in Nature Climate Change, it may be even worse than that. The new study, by a group of Australian psychologists and social scientists, examines the clash between climate adherents and so-called “skeptics” as an “intergroup conflict” (a psychological buzzword) driven, in significant part, by anger at those on the other side.
Or to put it another way, the debate is a cultural clash between two groups with divergent social identities who define those identities, in part, by criticizing those on the other side.
“Believers and sceptics [sic] are united, but only insofar as they are united in opposition to each other,” notes the paper, whose lead author is Ana-Maria Bliuc of Monash University in Victoria.
What do social psychologists mean when they talk about “intergroup conflict”? Tom Postmes, a psychologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands who wrote an accompanying essay about the new study, more or less defines the climate situation as tribal. He notes that on both sides of the climate debate, “believers” and “skeptics” are united by an in-group consciousness and identification as well as an out-group dislike or distrust. Or in other words, both see the issue in “us and them” terms. Such perceptions “revolve around the awareness of ‘us’ in opposition to ‘them’ with very clear boundaries between groups,” he writes.
Indeed, write Bliuc and her colleagues, the climate conflict “can be understood in similar terms to other social conflicts, such as that over abortion, the campaign for equality of the sexes, the US civil rights movement, and campaigns for marriage equality.”
One key aspect of in-group/out-group behavior is called “outgroup derogation” — negativity towards those who are members of the opposing group — and Postmes sees it here. “People tend to talk badly about the outgroup as a way of expressing solidarity with their own side,” writes Postmes.
The new study drew upon an online survey — using Amazon Mechanical Turk — of U.S. climate “skeptics” and “believers.” Along with various demographic and political questions, the subjects were also asked about how conscious they were of of being part of a group, how much anger they felt toward those on the other side, and how much they perceived their group to be effective in the world, or able to achieve its goals.
Based upon these questions, the research found that those whom the study calls “believers” — a label they won’t like — actually showed higher levels of group cohesion, self identification, sense of collective effectiveness, and “especially anger toward the opposing group and commitment to socio-political action.”
But of course, the research found that “skeptics” feel these things as well. “Part of the sceptic group consciousness is anger at climate change believers,” noted Bliuc and her colleagues. “Antagonizing sceptics and increasing their anger towards their opponents (for example, by suggesting that their beliefs are risible) is likely to rebound by making them more committed to take contrary action.”
In light of all of this, Postmes argued that “efforts should be directed to prevent escalation, improve the relationships, and focus on the dynamics within groups that prevent progress.” He particularly targets those on the side of the scientific consensus, noting that the “improvement of relations between groups partly depends on believers being willing and able to engage with climate sceptics and to jointly move towards pro-environmental action.”
Depolarization is a very desirable goal, but unfortunately, there’s a problem here that the papers don’t really address. Namely, a critical barrier may prevent conflict resolution in this particular case: This is a debate about science.
The principal source of division between those who want climate action, and the so-called “skeptics,” is over the validity of the scientific information underlying climate concerns itself. In general, “skeptics” criticize that data (and those who produce it), and so-called “believers” defend it (and those who produce it).
If a compromise means that those siding with the scientific community have to defend it less strongly, then it is very unlikely to ever happen. (Moreover, “skeptics” also seem to believe that they are objectively right about things.)
However, there is actually more flexibility and room for compromise in the domain of climate change solutions. Here, I’ve noted that a revenue neutral carbon tax — as opposed to EPA regulatory action — could ultimately be the “way out” for U.S. Republicans who seem to be beginning to recognize that opposing climate science is a political loser. That’s also something that climate advocates can accept — meaning they can perhaps give more ground here than they can on the validity of scientific information itself.
In other words, there are many roads towards reducing our carbon emissions — but there is only one way of interpreting mainstream climate science. The new Nature Climate Change papers describe two groups in conflict, but what really matters is the way out.