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Abstract

When scientific issues enter the realm of politics, how do ordinary citizens perceive policy debates in which both sides claim to rely on the best available scientific expertise? This dissertation examines this question using the case of the American public’s views about anthropogenic climate change. Although some research has traced elite-level polarization over climate change through networks linking corporate funders, think tanks, and conservative politicians, fewer studies investigate how ordinary citizens think about the issue. Much of this burgeoning literature, moreover, makes two untested assumptions: first, that elite information flows and partisan rhetoric about climate change represent public opinion; and second, that public polarization over climate change can be attributed to widespread misinformation or differences in citizens’ levels of factual knowledge. While citizens’ attention to political media and their scientific knowledge presumably impact their opinions about climate change in important ways, I argue that it is important to clarify how another factor—people’s broader political predispositions—influences their receptivity to incoming information about the issue. Correspondingly, it is necessary to recognize how public discourses about climate change have evolved to encompass not only debates over climate science, but also claims about the political implications of regulatory climate policies. Taking these factors into consideration, I argue that climate change “skepticism” among ordinary citizens is less likely to reflect scientific misinformation than predispositional factors, such as wariness about expanded government regulation and executive overreach. In other words, people’s perceptions of policy solutions might motivate how they define an otherwise invisible social problem. The dissertation’s empirical chapters test these arguments. Chapter 2 investigates how persuasive appeals about climate change in the mainstream media use cues that convey the economic, environmental, and political stakes of dealing with global warming. I analyze the editorial content of two major national newspapers with relatively different political constituencies—the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—from 1988 to 2011, to determine if they used systematically different language related to themes of climate risk and policy. The analysis indicates that the two papers’ editorial attention to climate change rose and fell together, but that the New York Times devoted significantly more space to the issue on its editorial pages. The NYT also featured significantly more editorials that referenced nature, disaster, and negative consequences from climate change. This chapter’s analysis has two implications for those that follow. First, to the extent that the volume of coverage corresponds to a news source’s potential agenda-setting effects—and to the extent that the NYT reaches a more liberal audience than the WSJ does—liberal citizens are exposed to more persuasive communications about climate change, whereas others might not think about the issue very much. Second, that the NYT’s appeals were more likely to use textual cues evoking climate change’s long-term risks implies that the demographics comprising its readership will express greater concern about the issue, and potentially greater support for climate change mitigation policies. In Chapter 3, I pick up and address these issues from a different angle. Using nationally representative survey data from the 2008-09 American National Election Studies, I examine two dimensions of the public’s views about climate change. First, I test the idea underlying many real-world environmental advocacy campaigns: i.e., that people who believe climate change exists are more likely to be concerned about its consequences, and in turn, will become more likely to support climate change mitigation policies. Second, I investigate how people’s factual knowledge and their political predispositions might influence, and potentially alter, this configuration of opinions. The results upheld the expectation that predispositions would influence people’s views about climate policies: a proxy for political predispositions had significant and direct effects on respondents’ support for three emissions policies to reduce global warming. Predispositions, moreover, did a better job of predicting policy support than people’s beliefs about the reality and potential severity of climate change. Thus, citizens do not necessarily draw on factual, domain-specific beliefs about the problem when they consider associated policy solutions—their opinions, rather, are more strongly associated with their broader political postures. There was one important caveat to this conclusion. People’s factual scientific knowledge greatly overshadowed the effects of their political predispositions when they were asked if they supported a policy that would raise taxes on gasoline. Taken together, this chapter’s results indicate that environmental campaigns aiming to persuade citizens that climate change exists will have relatively circumscribed effects on public support for mitigation policies. Factual knowledge, however, is not irrelevant: broader and deeper civic scientific knowledge will likely be required to generate public support for policies that require citizens to pay personal or economic costs. The fourth and final empirical chapter considers two additional factors that have been posited to influence citizens’ views about climate change, namely attitudes (as opposed to knowledge) about science, and traditionalist Christian beliefs. The chapter proceeds in two stages, and uses the same dataset as the previous chapter: first, I test the proposition that fundamentalist Christian views are associated with pessimistic or distrustful attitudes about scientific progress. In turn, I examine how both of these variables—fundamentalism and science attitudes—inform public views about climate change’s existence, causes, severity, and mitigation policies. In contrast to scholars who posit that religiosity is associated with antagonistic attitudes towards science, I do not find that fundamentalism dampens citizens’ enthusiasm about the social impacts of scientific progress. By and large, fundamentalist beliefs also did not account for variation in citizens’ views about climate change. Thus, although fundamentalists and the American Religious Right clash strongly with scientific expertise on issues with clear religious significance—such as evolution and abortion—the analyses presented here indicate that climate change does not evoke a comparable reaction. In contrast, people’s support for three emissions policies to mitigate climate change was consistently predicted by their political predispositions and their beliefs about the causes of climate change. As in the previous chapter, scientific knowledge and education strongly predicted support for increased taxes on gas. The analyses presented in this dissertation indicate that communication initiatives to raise public support for climate change mitigation policies should take into account how those policies’ attributes might activate citizens’ political and ideological values. The findings presented here also indicate that unless people begin to experience what they perceive to be the direct effects of climate change, they will be unwilling to pay personally for climate change mitigation policies. Broader social changes, including more comprehensive scientific education and civic knowledge, would be required to generate widespread support for policies that impose direct costs on citizens.

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