Social psychologists explore partisanship in environmental policy

Sherman and Van Boven

Dr. David Sherman of University of California, Santa Barbara, and Dr. Leaf Van Boven of University of Colorado joined our September 2018 call.

By Sara Wanous

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal. Check out recaps of past speakers here.

What role does partisanship play in environmental policy? How can we motivate more action? Social psychologists Dr. Leaf Van Boven of University of Colorado and Dr. David Sherman ofUniversity of California, Santa Barbara, study exactly that. Their inspiring and timely work has recently appeared in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, the New York Times, and now on Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s September 2018 national call.

Most people believe in climate change

Dr. Van Boven and Dr. Sherman’s study is based on a survey of 1,000 respondents approximately representative of the United States conducted in 2014, then repeated in 2016.  The first intention of the survey was to understand “the distribution of belief and concern about climate change,” said Dr. Sherman. To establish this baseline, they asked people to rank their agreement with the following four statements on a scale that ranged from strongly disagree (-3) to strongly agree (3): climate change is happening, human activity has contributed to climate change, climate change causes a threat to humans, and reducing carbon emissions would help mitigate climate change.  

The above graph shows the responses from that survey averaged together. The density plots represent the distribution of beliefs in climate change of Democrats in blue, Independents in purple, and Republicans in red.

“So first of all, let’s just acknowledge that there are some partisan differences here,” recognized Dr. Leaf Van Boven, describing how Democrats are “stacked up” on the right hand side and addressing that 70% of skeptics are Republicans.

However, Dr. Van Boven also pointed out that the more interesting and important takeaway from this figure is that “skeptics are a distinct minority of the overall distribution of each of the three groups, so even though it’s true that most skeptics are Republicans, the more substantive truth is that most Republicans are not skeptical—they recognize the reality of climate change just like most Democrats and Independents.” This pattern was replicated in the 2016 study and similar patterns are shown in data from the Pew Research Center and the American National Election Study.

More importantly, it is necessary to understand the action that people will take on their beliefs as it’s action that leads to political change. Dr. Van Boven and Dr. Sherman included questions in their survey about support for a carbon-pricing policy similar to CCL’s Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal, then compared that support to people’s belief in anthropogenic climate change, seen on the graph above.

“A lot of psychological science and political efforts have been trying to change what’s on the x-axis, trying to change people’s beliefs,” described Dr. Sherman, “but as you can see, there are many people who believe, but yet don’t support the carbon pricing policy.” Those people fall on the negative side of the y-axis. This suggests that maybe these efforts are tackling the wrong side of the problem. Perhaps instead of changing people’s minds about climate change, it would be more powerful to find ways to motivate people that already believe into action.

Partisan sway

Figuring out how to motivate people into action is exactly what Dr. Van Boven and Dr. Sherman did next. To understand ways to motivate action, they first needed to figure out what was causing their inaction. The team suspected that inaction may be caused by partisan influences.  To test their theory, they asked their survey respondents about their support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax policy, but in one condition participants were told that the policy was backed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, and in the other that it was backed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.

The Independents liked the policy and were indifferent to who it was backed by. However, the partisan participants toed the party line. Democrats widely liked the proposal either way, but supported the policy significantly more if it was favored by Democrats. Republicans were neutral about the policy if it was backed by Democrats, but were supportive if it was backed by Republicans. “The other way to look at this figure might suggest what would happen if Republicans actually proposed a policy,” elaborated Dr. David Sherman. “There is much more uniform support for the policy when Republicans proposed it.”

However, the data does show a pattern in which people are sensitive to where a policy comes from. Why are people swayed by these partisan considerations?

Dr. Van Boven suggests, “The reason people respond in this partisan way is that they think their peers would respond in a partisan way.” In their survey, they also asked respondents to predict what the average Republican and the average Democrat support for such a policy would be. These results showed a much larger difference than the actual difference in negative reactions; Democrats didn’t expect any of their peers to support a policy introduced by Republicans and Republicans expected their peers to oppose a policy supported by Democrats. Dr. Van Boven elaborated that “what people are worried about is violating the norm or the belief that most of their peers hold, not necessarily violating their political leaders.”

How do we intervene?

Dr. Van Boven and Dr. Sherman referenced other social psychology studies and discussed their findings with retired members of congress on both sides of the aisle to develop the following recommendations for intervening in the partisan trend:

  • Education. When people collectively misunderstand the beliefs of their peers, social psychology research shows that these beliefs can be dispelled by simply providing more accurate information. In the case of partisanship in environmental policy, this means sharing the results of this study.
  • Avoid culturally loaded language. Social psychology literature shows that people are most defensive about their identities when they feel threatened. Thus, if you want someone to be receptive to new ideas, you must be careful to not use threatening language. In the realm of environmental policy, this could mean saying “skeptics” instead of “deniers,” or “climate change” instead of “global warming.”
  • Genuine appreciation. When people’s morals and good intentions are recognized, they are more open to learning things that may have felt threatening otherwise. CCL does this when we make sure to genuinely appreciate our members of Congress for specific actions that they’ve taken and values that align with ours.

The good news is that CCL already excels at these techniques. According to Dr. Leaf Van Boven, our approach shows “what we refer to as a psychologically wise type of intervention. That is an intervention that, whether intentional or not, builds a deep understanding of how people work psychologically.”

To hear more from Dr. Leaf Van Boven and Dr. David Sherman, including some Q&A with CCL volunteers, watch the entire September meeting on YouTube or listen to the podcast.  

Sara Wanous has been the Membership Coordinator at Citizens’ Climate Lobby since January 2018. She has a B.A. in Economics and B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from Chapman University and is pursuing a masters in Climate Science and Policy at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.