Why climate debates get people so angry

"We found the contrasting opinions of believers and skeptics about the causes of climate change provided the basis of social identities that define who they are, what they stand for, and who they stand with (and against)," says Ana-Maria Bliuc. (Credit: Sadie Hernandez/Flickr)

Improving the public’s understanding of science isn’t enough to build support for policies that would fight climate change, say researchers.

A new study, published in Nature Climate Change, finds that when it comes to human-induced climate change, the actions and beliefs of both skeptics and believers could be understood as integrated expressions of self, underpinning specific social identities.

Using an online survey of climate change skeptics and believers living in the US, researchers measured differences between the two groups: their environmental behaviors, emotional responses, national and global identification, and a number of other variables.

Social scientist Ana-Maria Bliuc from the Monash University School of Social Sciences says that although there was a growing belief among the general public that climate change was real, there was also a sharp division in beliefs about its causes, with many people skeptical of human-induced change.

“We found the contrasting opinions of believers and skeptics about the causes of climate change provided the basis of social identities that define who they are, what they stand for, and who they stand with (and against),” says Bliuc.

“In making up an aspect of self, these beliefs and emotional reactions can predict support for actions that advance the positions of each group.”

‘Angry opposition’

The researchers also find that part of both sides’ group consciousness was anger at the opposing side.

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“This finding suggests that antagonizing skeptics and increasing their anger towards their opponents is likely to polarize them further, making them more committed to act in support of their cause,” says Bliuc.

The researchers suggest that communication and education strategies alone are unlikely to overcome the divisions between the two groups.

“Interventions that increase angry opposition to action on climate change are especially problematic,” says Bliuc.

“Strategies for building support for mitigation policies should go beyond attempts to improve the public’s understanding of science, to include approaches that will change the relationship between the two groups.”

Researchers from the University of Western Sydney, Murdoch University, and Flinders University also contributed to the work.

Source: Monash University