The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many Americans think that climate-change deniers ‘get what they deserve’ when disasters strike

Firefighter Jose Corona sprays water as flames from the Camp Fire consume a home in Magalia, Calif., on Nov. 9. (AP)
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Earlier this month, President Trump raised eyebrows when he tweeted that Californians and their state government were to blame for the devastating fires that left 76 people dead and thousands of others injured. Democrats and fire management experts quickly condemned the president’s comment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused Trump of “insult[ing] the memory” of those who died as a result of the disaster.

Presidents don’t usually blame disaster victims for their suffering. But in keeping with the spirit of that comment, a surprising proportion of Americans who believe climate science think that climate deniers “get what they deserve” when they’re hit with climate-related natural disasters such as coastal hurricanes, which scientists think are becoming more frequent and severe as average global temperatures increase.

Why would people feel that particular kind of schadenfreude, concluding that others deserve to have their lives devastated by natural disasters? In our recent research, we determine that’s because, as the nation polarizes more extremely, Democrats and Republicans increasingly dislike one another as people.

Political partisans increasingly think very poorly of the opposing side

Americans in earlier decades were motivated to participate in politics largely by having strong and positive attachments to their own political party. That’s no longer true. Today’s voters are driven instead by what political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster have called “negative partisanship”: Democrats loathe Republicans, and Republicans abhor Democrats. Polling shows that Americans believe a wide variety of negative stereotypes about supporters of the opposing party and that few Americans who identify strongly with a party have friends on the other side of the political divide.

Although it is certainly true that not all Americans are strong partisans, few Americans identify as “pure independents” — i.e., independents who do not say they lean toward one party. As a result, we think that many Americans are susceptible to engaging in this type of schadenfreude.

Climate change is one of the issues where beliefs have polarized along partisan lines. Democrats tend to be more likely than Republicans to think that humans are responsible for climate change and to favor taking policy action to combat it.

So do these differences in opinion translate into ill wishes toward the “other side”?

Here’s how we did our research

We set out to test whether people who accept scientific consensus on climate change — particularly Democrats and liberals — are motivated by partisan teamsmanship to think that those who deny climate change “get what they deserve” when natural disaster strikes.

To do this, we sampled 4,056 people using Lucid’s Fulcrum academic tool. Although the data are not nationally representative, Lucid targets representativeness on factors such as age, race, income, sex and region of residence. Data from Lucid has been shown to be much more reflective of nationally representative benchmarks than conventional convenience sample data.

We asked our survey respondents two sets of questions. First, we asked about their views on climate change. Respondents could indicate that they do not know whether climate change is occurring; that climate change is not occurring; that climate change is occurring, spurred by “natural causes”; and, finally, that climate change is occurring because of “human activities.” About 54 percent of our respondents indicated that climate change is caused by human activities, an opinion shared by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community.

Among those who believe human activities are causing climate change, we asked whether “people who don’t believe in climate change get what they deserve” when naturally occurring disasters strike where they live. Respondents indicated their agreement using a standard seven-point scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

How to convince people that climate change is real

Shot through with schadenfreude

More than a third of people who believe that climate change is primarily caused by humans agree at least somewhat with the idea that natural disaster victims who do not accept climate science get what they deserve when they’re hit by climate-caused disasters. The overwhelming majority (68 percent) of these people were Democrats, although some Republicans (22 percent) and independents (10 percent) held these feelings as well.

Further, we find evidence consistent with the idea that this schadenfreude is fueled by partisan teamsmanship.

The biggest politically motivated predictor of thinking that climate deniers deserve to be hit by natural disasters was whether someone identifies as an ideological liberal. In fact, among Democrats, identifying as a liberal is associated with approximately a 38 percent greater likelihood of believing that climate-change deniers get what they deserve if their region is devastated by a hurricane.

To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that only liberals and Democrats blame victims or wish them ill, or that they are generally more likely to do so. We looked at only a single issue in this study: extreme weather patterns resulting from climate change. We expected those who agree with the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, who are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans, to be more likely to blame victims. Republicans may very well be more likely than Democrats to blame victims on other issues — for instance, if someone opposed to carrying weapons is the victim of a crime.

Can 2018’s extreme weather persuade skeptics that the climate is changing?

It’s not enough to win; the other side must suffer

Our findings reveal just how deeply Americans have come to dislike members of the other political team: deeply enough to believe that others should suffer physical harm as suitable retribution for holding differing opinions about contentious issues.

Whatever the cause of this animosity, it’s unlikely to be useful in political debate. Previous research suggests that people are more receptive to changing their minds about climate and other science-related issues when others make an effort to recognize and validate their values and concerns. Wishing ill on opponents is unlikely to persuade them to change their minds. 

[The climate is changing. Here’s how politics will also change.]

Steven Webster (@stevenwwebster) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.  

Matt Motta (@matt_motta) is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.