UKIP’s rise may undo the climate change consensus

UKIP’s policies on climate change have played fast and loose with the facts. Nick Ansell/PA Wire

The surge of support for UKIP at the local council elections this month suggests Britain, or at least some of it, is experiencing a lurch to the right.

The party’s rag-bag of populist policies, described as “post-ideological” because they lack core principles to bind them together, nevertheless out-flank the Tories. Any move to the right is bound to have serious consequences for climate change and environmental policies. Only today, Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey warned that: “Public support is chipped away if the populist politicians refuse to engage with the evidence of the science and just ignore it.

In the US, environmental views have become so polarised that they function as a reliable indicator of political views. But a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows quite how extreme this polarisation has become.

The researchers, led by Dena Gromet at the University of Pennsylvania, compared the views and behaviours of liberal and conservative voters. Their hypothesis was that an emphasis on the "environmental” credentials of products or policies might reduce their appeal to conservatives (who would not want to be associated with the left-ish connotations of environmental concern).

Policies aimed at carbon reduction – an issue most closely associated with environmental concern – produced a pronounced split based on political leaning. Conservative voters were strongly against, liberal voters strongly for. Other policies, such as reducing dependence on foreign oil or reducing energy costs, demonstrated the same, if less pronounced, ideological split.

A second test saw participants provided with money to purchase either an energy-efficient or old-style incandescent light bulb. They found that any label which mentioned or championed the environmental benefits of the bulb repelled conservative shoppers. Without such a label, they were happy to buy it.

The study is only the latest in a growing body of research that points to a consistent relationship between people’s political views and their willingness to engage with environmental issues like climate change.

A long-standing finding in social psychology is that for contentious issues (such as capital punishment), the very same information is likely to be processed in a biased way by people with different prior beliefs. Counter-intuitively, the same information, when assimilated into people’s existing views, prejudices and political preferences, can sometimes force people’s positions further apart, rather than closer together.

Because the politics of environmental issues like climate change are contested, so the “facts” of climate science are filtered through people’s existing beliefs. They are accepted or rejected based on their congruence with an individual’s values or their views about the structure of society.

Those with conservative political views are more likely to be opposed to many of the proposed policy solutions to climate change – regulation of industry, government campaigns to change behaviour, or taxation – and so work backwards to downplay or reject the seriousness of the underlying problem. For those on the left, these policy solutions are more acceptable, and so denial of the underlying problem is unlikely.

While the science around whether human activity is changing the climate is unequivocal, the closely related question “what should we do about it?” is deeply contested. As it should be – scientific descriptions of the risks posed by climate change cannot tell us how we should respond to them. This is a decision for society, of which the underlying science is only a part. Debate and disagreement about climate policy is not only inevitable but desirable in a democracy with pluralistic values. But there is an urgent need for climate change communicators to reach out across the political divide and find ways of engaging political conservatives.

As Gromet’s study demonstrates, by assuming that all sections of society respond in a uniform way to messages about the environment, there is a risk of a “green backlash” against policies viewed as favouring a particular ideological slant.

If political conservatives have so far not found environmental policies to their liking, then a priority for everyone who cares about climate change, whatever their political leaning, is to find a way of reconciling the values of the right with policy responses to climate change that are sustainable and just.

Otherwise – and the rise of UKIP suggests this may be closer than many assumed – the hard-won cross-party consensus on climate change in Britain, enshrined in the Climate Change Act, could be undone.

And that would be an outcome in no-one’s interest – left or right.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.