In the past week, Scott Pruitt, embattled chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, testified before two House panels about alleged ethics violations and controversial spending decisions. Under this scrutiny, two of his top aides have resigned.
Some observers suggest that Pruitt’s deregulatory efforts haven’t been very effective. But the Pruitt-led EPA has supported efforts to publicly question climate science, to undermine its use in regulating air pollution and other environmental contaminants, and to discourage legitimate scientific research. At one point, his EPA suggested a “Red Team/Blue Team”-style debate on climate science, which would publicly attack the scientific consensus on the causes and course of climate change.
American public opinion on climate science is divided by party
Public opinion on climate change has been divided by party for many years; Pruitt’s efforts could accelerate that division. Consider, for instance, a March Gallup poll showing that fewer Republican voters agree that there is a scientific consensus on climate change or that the climate is changing in large part because of human activity.
Gallup found that 35 percent of Republicans agreed that global warming is caused by human activity, down from 40 percent last year. In contrast, 89 percent of Democrats agreed this was the case, up from 87 percent last year. Furthermore, 42 percent of Republicans agreed that there was a scientific consensus on climate change, down from 53 percent last year.
Pruitt may not be the only cause of that shift, but his efforts have probably influenced it.
Here’s how we did our research
Our research suggests that more Republicans in Congress would need to speak out in support of climate science to narrow this partisan gap and correct these misperceptions. Several have already criticized Pruitt’s spending habits, but few have questioned his rejection of climate science.
We conducted two online survey experiments on Amazon Mechanical Turk – a pilot on a sample of 970 respondents and then a larger sample with 1,338 respondents – in which participants read a short article in which a Republican politician challenged or denied the scientific consensus on climate change. The article emphasized falsehoods commonly levied by prominent climate-change skeptics: that the science was unsettled; that human activity may not necessarily contribute to climate change; and that calls for environmental regulation were “alarmist.” In fact, more than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the atmosphere is warming, in large part because of such human activity as the use of fossil fuels.
However, respondents read different versions of this article. One group received only the misinformation, while other groups received the misinformation followed by a correction that offered the scientific consensus. Of the groups that read the correct information, different groups were told that it came from either climate scientists, Democratic politicians or Republican politicians.
We then measured their opinions on three different points: that there is a scientific consensus on climate change; that climate change is affected by human activity; and that it is a serious issue.
The messenger is as important as the message
Those who read the scientists’ corrections were, on average, moderately more likely to say they believed the climate consensus. But Republicans and independent voters were most likely to be persuaded of climate science when given correct information by a Republican politician. That especially influenced their opinions on whether climate change is serious – by as much as 15 percent more than if they were told the correct information was from a scientist.
The Republican source was far more effective than a Democratic source in almost all cases. Democrats also reported greater agreement with climate science when a correction came from a Republican rather than a Democratic politician.
Respondents who believed the correction was from a Democrat were slightly more likely to say they believed in climate change than those who read only the misinformation – but the change was significantly less than for those who believed the correction was from a Republican.
Independents – real independents, leaving out those who said they leaned toward one political party – were also most likely to say they agreed with the scientific consensus if they read a correction ostensibly from a Republican.
Our study strongly suggests that it’s not enough to correct misinformation about climate change by just providing a corrective statement; the messenger is as important as the medium. These results are consistent with Adam Berinsky’s research on correcting political misinformation. He found that Republicans were especially effective in countering rumors about “death panels” in health-care reform.
Republicans who take a stand favoring the scientific consensus will persuade more Americans than either Democrats or scientists. This may be because such a stance is rare for Republicans – and potentially costly. For instance, in 2010, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) was defeated in a primary for his House seat after advocating for action on climate change. And such a stance may attract additional attention, since it rejects the Republican party line. As a result, Republicans like Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) or Rep. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.) who speak out on climate change may be especially persuasive in increasing concern and knowledge about climate change. And that may be most effective at countering the climate misinformation promoted by such people as Scott Pruitt.
Salil Benegal (@SalilBenegal) is an assistant professor of political science at DePauw University.
Lyle Scruggs (@condorcetsd) is a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.