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The politicization of climate change

Over the past few decades, climate change science has become an increasingly divisive topic in the United States. Talking heads debate the issue ad nauseum on cable television, leaders drag their feet in addressing the manmade factors that contribute to it- all while a strong consensus exists among the scientific community that the acceleration of climate change is caused by human activity. What is the disconnect, and why is education based on extensive research not enough to convince some Americans of the severity of the climate crisis?

I recently sat down with Dr. Joseph Henderson, a lecturer in the Environment and Society Department at Paul Smith’s College, to discuss the politicization of climate change science and the psychology of climate change denial.

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

Global factors at play in climate change denial

To understand how climate change has become so politicized in the U.S., we must first recognize the global factors at play.

“Climate change results from very powerful, broad global patterns, mostly of colonialism and global capitalism,” explained Henderson. “You have some nations that are developing and becoming wealthy by extracting resources and labor from other nations.”

Henderson pointed out that wealthy, imperialist nations like the U.S. are among the highest polluters and users of resources in the world. These nations have a vested interest in maintaining that system, and climate change regulations do not typically jive with the pursuit of profit.

“Climate change denial is primarily a function of wealthy, white, industrialized nations,” said Henderson. “I’ve done some work in South Africa, and when we were talking to South African ministers of government, we’d be like, ‘Do you have climate change deniers here?’ and they’d be like, ‘What are you talking about? We don’t have the privilege of that here.’”

People in positions of power have an interest to deny science- In this sense, a parallel exists between climate change denial and discourse surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are wealthy people who just want to get back to work, and don’t want to be burdened with public health,” said Henderson.

Likewise, they do not want to be burdened with the issue of climate change, especially those working in economic sectors that bear the most responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. The largescale acceptance of climate science might put pressure on the U.S. government to impose more regulations on business, thereby affecting their bottom line, an outcome many industry leaders seek to avoid outright.

Conservative leaders used to take climate change seriously

Notably, climate change denial has not always been the conservative talking point it is today. In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush actively promoted measures to combat climate change. As part of his 1988 presidential campaign, Bush gave a speech on environmental policy that expressed concerns over the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer as a direct result of human activity. He even self-identified as an “environmentalist.”

Similarly, Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and one of the architects of modern conservatism, delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 where she cautioned, “There will be no profit or satisfaction for anyone if pollution continues to destroy our planet. We should always remember that free markets are a means to an end. They would defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life through pollution than the well-being they achieve by the production of goods and services.”

This was before fossil fuel companies began lobbying to delay action on climate change, which contributed heavily to the modern denial of climate change among conservatives in the U.S.

Psychology of climate change denial

We’ve gone over the why of climate change denial on a macro scale, but what is to be said about climate change denial among small, rural U.S. populations? Why do people continue to deny climate change when evidence of its impact can be seen in their own environment? One reason, according to Henderson, has to do with the concept of identity protective cognition.

Identity protective cognition, sometimes called motivated reasoning, is a psychological term for the tendency of people to interpret issues through the lens of the social group to which they belong. People often interpret facts in a way that makes the most sense to them, even if this interpretation obscures truth. They do so to minimize cognitive dissonance, which is experienced when a person’s internal beliefs do not match up with new information they encounter.

Henderson points to research conducted by Larry Hamilton, Professor of Sociology and Senior Fellow in the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, that shows “political ideology is so powerful in the United States right now, we are so polarized, that it actually overwhelms people’s visceral experience with nature.”

“Conservative parties around the world don’t have the degree of climate change denial that we have here,” explained Henderson. “A lot of that has to do with fossil fuel companies, and fossil fuel funding that have created systems of doubt. It influences voters, it influences families, and it influences the stories that they tell.”

Additionally, there is a generational gap in the acceptance of climate change science. A 2020 study from the Pew Research Center found Republicans ages 18 to 38 are more likely to think humans have a role in climate change compared to their elders.

Henderson said the research paper he co-authored with academics Kevin Meuwissen and David Long is “very much us thinking about our own teaching, and thinking through, ‘what do we actually do in that situation?’ How do you actually move forward with people who might be ideologically primed to reject [climate change] science?”

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

This article is part one of a two-part series on climate change spurred by my discussion with Dr. Henderson. It is based, partially, on a paper titled “What is climate change education in Trump Country?” which appeared in the most recent version of the journal Educational and Developmental Psychologist. Henderson co-authored the article along with Kevin Meuwissen, associate professor and chair of teaching and curriculum at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, and David Long, associate professor of middle grades and secondary education at Morehead State University.

Next week, we will dive into the specifics of that paper, including how climate change is taught in rural schools, the limitations of the education system, and how framing climate change teachings through the lens of students’ identities, politics, and cultural economies could be key in bridging the divide on climate change opinion. Part Two will also feature concepts from the book Teaching Climate Change in the United States edited by Dr. Joseph Henderson and Dr. Andrea Drewes, which you can find here.