American Sociological Association

Pro-Environmental Views of Climate Skeptics

February 26, 2020

by Kristin Haltinner and Dilshani Sarathchandra

Nick was not always skeptical about human-caused climate change; for most of his life, he believed the science as presented in documentaries and on the news. Things began to change for Nick around 2014 when some of the predictions made in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth still hadn’t been realized. In Nick’s words: “You have Gore and other people who have said the ice caps should be melted by now… Clearly, that was wrong.”

Nick was born and raised in southern Idaho. The child of divorce, he doesn’t feel a strong connection to any particular place because he “bounced around a bit.” Nick is a self-declared “news junkie.” He remembers being moved by Reagan’s “little Star Wars speech.” However, after facing personal tragedy, Nick lost faith in both major political parties – seeing them both as corrupt, weak, and lacking the political courage to do anything that would improve people’s lives.

Nick told us that he views the ‘celebritization’ of climate change as disingenuous, a move to get more viewers, “People who are not scientists at all are making flamboyant claims… the best example is John Stewart… when you have people exaggerating claims beyond what the actual thing should be, that puts enough doubt in me.”

In spite of his present doubts about climate change, Nick harbors several pro-environmental views and supports some environmental regulation, particularly for curbing pollution. In this vein, Nick argues: “The EPA has done some good things in the past. Like sulfur dioxide is a pretty big one with that… I think the EPA shouldn’t be too underfunded because if it is too underfunded... They’ll end up cutting corners…”

Nick isn’t alone in his views that are both simultaneously skeptical of climate change, yet largely pro- environmental. In research conducted in 2017 and 2018 among self-identified climate change skeptics in Idaho, we found that the prevailing view of ‘climate skeptics’ within the political and cultural discourse, a monolithic group who opposes most or all climate action, lacks a nuanced understanding of skeptics’ perceptions. Our research suggests that people who are skeptical about human-caused climate change most often hold pro-environmental views. They demonstrate support for political measures to curb pollution, investments in renewable energy, reforestation, and preservation of the Earth. Many of the initiatives that seem to be gaining support among skeptics are likely to improve air quality in the short term and reduce levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the long term. Understanding and better communicating these nuances among skeptical views is particularly important where politicians and political pundits often tend to reject pro-environmental policies in the guise of widespread climate skepticism.

Our Participants

Idaho was ideal for this research as the state has a higher percentage of climate change skeptics than the national average. The high numbers are likely due to being home to a disproportionate number of libertarians, evangelical Christians, and Mormons – all groups who are more likely than the average American to deny climate change. Our research among skeptics consisted of 33 in-depth interviews with adults residing in Idaho. Participants came from a variety of religious and political backgrounds. Of the participants who chose to reveal their religious affiliations, one identified as nondenominational Christian, one as Christian, three as Evangelical, four as Catholic, and four as Mormon. Politically, one person identified as a Democrat, one as an anarchist, one as apolitical, one as a conservative Democrat, one as a conservative Republican, one as an independent, two as conservative, two as moderate conservative, two as leaning Republican, four as libertarian, and five as Republican. Twelve of our participants identified as politically unaffiliated, skeptical about both parties, or on the line. Thirty-two of our participants were white, and nine were women.

Prior Research on U.S. Climate Change Skepticism  

In the United States, doubts about anthropogenic climate change are a shared sentiment by a significant fraction of the public. According to the 2018 Yale Climate Opinion Maps, 14% of Americans overall do not believe that global warming is happening. This number is higher in Idaho at 20%. In the same study, 32% of Americans do not believe that human activities cause warming, again, this percentage is higher in Idaho at 36%.

Recent social science scholarship reveals several important patterns within public skepticism of climate change. First, scholars have found that people who are politically conservative, white, male, and members of an evangelical religious organization are more likely to be skeptical about climate change. This indicating that these fractions of the public are more likely to be resistant to messaging and actions related to climate change. Second, consistent with motivated reasoning, social scientists have found that personal vulnerability to climate change and exposure to information about climate change does not necessarily correlate with one’s beliefs about climate change. Finally, sociologists and psychologists have demonstrated that climate change skepticism typically correlates with beliefs in other scientifically unsubstantiated claims (e.g., the existence of conspiracies related to 9-11, Apollo moon landings, etcetera).  

In the United States, climate change skepticism has remained relatively constant over the past ten years, despite an increase in media attention and scientific understanding of the issue. This skepticism is likely due to a well-funded and well-organized disinformation campaign sustained by the fossil fuel industry, libertarian think tanks, and, more recently, networks of actors integrated into various U.S. philanthropic institutions. Using the “tobacco model” these organizations hire dissenting scientists and magnify their voices to manufacture the perception of disagreement between scientists, despite the fact that over 97% of active climate scientists agree with the eminent dangers of human-caused climate change.

In this backdrop of scientific uncertainty and perceived public skepticism towards climate change, the Trump Administration and other Republicans have moved away from major pro-environmental platforms touted by former party leaders, such as John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign. Instead, the current administration has moved towards rolling back a large number of environmental programs enacted by previous administrations. Yet, contrary to this administration’s prevalent environmental policies, our research reveals a considerable amount of pro-environmental views among self-identified climate-change skeptics, including support for regulations to curb air and water pollution, as we discuss below.

Support for Curbing Pollution

Despite not believing in human-caused climate change, when asked about pollution, all of our research participants stated that they were concerned. One participant, David, an evangelical Christian raised in Idaho, aptly summarized, “It’s not like conservatives want to breathe dirty air.” Indeed, for some, concern about pollution was quite personal. Jennifer, a transplant from the American southeast, expressed disgust at the noticeable pollutant levels in her community: “There are times of the year where the entire city of Nampa smelled like peanut butter and onion.”

Her peers agree. Zed, a politically unaffiliated man born and raised in southern Idaho, was concerned about the direct health effects of pollution on his family. His first wife struggled with asthma, prompting the young family to move to Northern Idaho so that they “were in clean air.” Following his divorce and relocation to the Boise area, Zed again found himself in the same predicament when his next girlfriend began struggling with excessive pollution in the region. At one point during the interview, sighing deeply, Zed declared: “I can tell you pollution in the air is a problem.” This sentiment was echoed time-and-time again by our participants.

Not all of the people we interviewed had experienced the negative effects of pollution directly; others cited broad national conversations about pollution as the impetus for their concern about this issue. For example, Pam, a white college graduate from southern Idaho spoke about Flint, Michigan, as an example of why we need to put limits on pollution: “in Flint, Michigan these poor little kids that now have problems because of lead poising. It is terrible…Someone should go in there and immediately clean that up… This is harming people, and instead, we are taking away regulations.” Others expressed concern about toxins or plastic in the ocean, pharmaceuticals in the water system, smog in big cities, pesticides killing pollinators, and other systemic problems as central to their concerns about pollution.

While all of our participants were concerned about pollution, they did not see a link between pollution and climate change. Tyler, a white politically unaffiliated man from southern Idaho demonstrates this shared belief, “I’m not going to sit here and make the distinction saying that dumping toxic waste into our rivers is global warming. No. No. No. Dumping toxic waste in our rivers is wrong. That is pretty straight forward.” Another resident, David, claimed: “I’m certainly not going to demonize carbon because it is plant food… But, keep the air clean. Keep the water clean.”

Despite the Trump Administration’s moves to cut regulations and defund the EPA, people in our study who are skeptical about climate change, even those who identify as politically libertarian, support measures to regulate emissions, much like Nick above. Mark, an atheist anarchist from southern Idaho recognized the apparent contradiction in this viewpoint: “Yeah, it’s ironic, but I suppose we need some government to keep an eye on [pollution and dumping].” He further argued that the government had put themselves “in charge of the commons. And the air and the water and the wildlife are all in the commons that we all share. So maybe we should have government to make sure that that’s not being abused.”  

People skeptical about climate change still see government regulations as having helped with historic pollution crises. For example, Nancy, a college graduate from southern Idaho, suggested that air quality has improved as a result of regulation: “The issue of pollution is much better than it had been back in the ‘70s or ‘80s… There have been a lot of rules and regulations that have been put in place.” As further support for her position, she compared the United States to other nations with fewer regulations: “I think other countries are not doing things about pollution which is making pollution globally probably worse.”

Participants in our study also suggested other solutions they would support, including carbon capture, free-market solutions (such as litigation against factories that pollute), and increasing funding for the EPA. These perceptions among our interview participants reflect broader trends among the general public noted by the Yale Climate Communication Project, where 74% of respondents support regulating CO2 as a pollutant and 66% support setting strict CO2 limits on existing coal-fired power plants. Very few Americans in general support programs that could be detrimental to the environment: only 36% of Americans support drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and fewer than half support expanding offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.

Read the full article in the winter issue of Contexts.

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