The Polarizing Poles: Yet Another Study Shows That More Knowledgeable Conservatives Are *Worse* on Global Warming

Tue, 2012-06-05 07:11Chris Mooney
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The Polarizing Poles: Yet Another Study Shows That More Knowledgeable Conservatives Are *Worse* on Global Warming

Bloggers and commentators have been talking a lot lately about a recent study, by Dan Kahan and colleagues in Nature Climate Change, capturing what I call the “smart idiot” effect: Conservatives who are more educated, or have a higher degree of scientific literacy, are more strongly in denial (or less worried) about global warming.

In this post, I want to underscore the robustness of this finding, by showing that it has also turned up in a study just out in the journal Polar Geography.

The paper (citation below; abstract here; author’s draft here) is by Lawrence Hamilton and his colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. In it, the researchers examine a wealth of survey data about people’s knowledge of (and concern about) global warming in the polar regions—data collected by the General Social Survey in 2006 and 2010. Then, they cross-reference these results with measurements of general scientific literacy and political ideology…and, well, that’s when the smart idiots show up to be counted. As we’ll see.

First, though, some background.

Polar warming is, as Laurel Whitney recently explained here, an extremely big deal. This isn’t just about what happens to the polar bears. The growing potential for exploitation of oil and gas in the Arctic, made accessible by ongoing sea ice and permafrost melting, adds a new variable to the global energy economy and also further amps up our potential carbon dioxide contributions to the atmosphere.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the risk–if global warming advances far enough—of destabilizing the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

They contain so much water that they could, together, raise the global sea level by 13 meters (or about 42 feet). In such a scenario, the planet changes irrevocably.

Public knowledge increased about the polar regions from 2006 to 2010, based on the General Social Survey data unpacked by Hamilton et al in their new paper. And in light of the importance of these regions to our planetary future, you would think this would be unqualified good news. It isn’t, though, because concern about global warming at the poles did not increase in a way that corresponded with increased knowledge.

Why not? One simple word: Ideology.

Basically, if you’re a conservative, then the data show that you are likely to care less about the extinction of polar bears, about sea level rise, about ice cap melting, about what happens to the Inuits, and about threats to Arctic and Antarctic wildlife.  But that’s not all. You see, the General Social Survey also assesses people’s degree of scientific literacy with “true or false” questions like ‘‘Electrons are smaller than atoms” and  ‘‘Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.’’

Scoring better on polar knowledge, and scoring better on scientific literacy, tends to make most people more concerned about what’s happening to the polar regions. But that trend doesn’t hold up for political conservatives. As the authors report:

…among politically liberal, moderate or even slightly conservative respondents, concern about polar climate change, or support for reserving the Antarctic, tend to increase as science literacy goes up. Among the most conservative respondents, however, concern about climate and support for reserving the Antarctic stay level or even slightly decline as science literacy goes up.

The authors demonstrate this visually when it comes to a question about sea level rise. Respondents were asked how worried they were about 20 feet of sea level rise, leading to coastal flooding (frankly, coastal inundation). You’d think any thoughtful and well informed person would be concerned about such a thing, right? Indeed, you’d think a conservative would be particularly concerned about such a thing, given how destabilizing it would be, how disruptive to the way our lives have always been lived—right?

Wrong. Look what happens to ideological conservatives as they get more scientific literacy:

That’s right, kids. The more scientifically literate conservatives get, the less worried they are about 20 feet of sea level rise!

If that’s not smart idiocy, then I just don’t know what is.

Now, presumably these conservatives would be concerned about sea level rise if they thought it was a real threat—they just don’t think it’s is one. (I mean, after all, North Carolina is trying to legislate it away!) Their education and scientific literacy help them rationalize the idea that climate change isn’t happening, and then it is easy for them to dismiss all claims about how bad it is going to be.

In the conclusion of their paper, Hamilton et al set this phenomenon in the context of the growing mountain of research on biased reasoning, explaining how human foibles like confirmation bias and motivated reasoning likely explain this bizarre effect among conservatives. In other words, conservatives here are just showing a particularly extreme form of follies to which we are all susceptible.

In this case, though, it is particularly stunning. After all, you just know that many of these same conservatives will be thrilled to learn that the oil and gas companies in which they own stock are acquiring new reserves in the Arctic (or at least, thrilled to see their stock prices and dividends rise because of it). You can’t have that economic opportunity without the accompanying threat of dramatic sea level rise—but, well, there’s cognitive dissonance for you.

*** Lawrence C. Hamilton, Matthew J. Cutler & Andrew Schaefer (2012): Public knowledge and concern about polar-region warming, Polar Geography, 35:2, 155-168.

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“If that’s not smart idiocy, then I just don’t know what is.”

Of course you know what is.  Hopefully we can expand the numbers of good old fashion “dumb idiots” who will worry about everything.

Of course he is right. No matter what we do to the planet it will continue and in a few million years in the worst case scenario, our damage to it will be pretty much wiped away.

If you still believe pricing carbon is the only way to lower emissions, are you a “smart idiot” or a “dumb idiot”?

It really doesn’t matter how you lower emissions, or which is the best way.  Any way that works is smarter than avoiding the issue.  Or just arguing about it instead of doing something.

All economists know that a Tax will disuade people and shift their priorities.  This is after all the center piece of Stephen Harper’s economic plan.  Lower taxes will create jobs and direct money flow into Canada.

Stephen Harper has also implemented a Carbon Intensity (tax) program that is similar to US Republican system.  He claims this will disuade industries from generating too much carbon.

Carbon tax or Green Subsidy are about the same thing.  The US is subsidizing Green Technologies in a big way, look up Wind in the US.  That will go a long way to reducing power plant emmissions.  However it is presumptive to think that it is the most efficient way to reduce carbon consumption.  Like Hansen, I prefer conservative values in this regard. I think that the free market should dictate what we do.

Now there are other factors driving energy away from carbon intense output.  Energy prices have made solar economically viable in Hawaii, California, and New Jersey.  Many more states are on the way in this regard.  Its privately subsidized and being done primarily to save money.

When Kyoto was first introduced, it was was expected to at a cost of $4 per barrel extra (on Tar Sands Oil no less) when oil was $35 a barrel.  Klein relented in the end and said that there was ‘wiggle room’ to enact the much hated Kyoto.  Here we are and oil prices have more than doubled to $80-$100 a barrel and NO ONE IS COMPLAINING.  Sounds like a 100% tax would be fine to me!

Appearently your article agrees with me;

The Americans buy more oil than any other nation on earth. But, as I wrote last year, rapidly rising oil prices are driving a big decline in America’s oil use. The price of oil has more than doubled since 2005. Double the price of a commodity and people will use less.

PS.  I’m impressed that you are copying my argument style.  You must have been so exciting by my technique.  I dunno.. monkey see, monkey do I guess.  Anyways… I liked your article.. I think I’ll share it around.  In fact its a pretty damn green article.  Are you feeling OK?

but if you and I sat down together, and signed monkey to monkey, and drank alot of beer, I bet we would probably agree on alot.  :-)

IEA excludes Natural Gas.  (Methane)

So… whether the US has in fact reduced its GHG foot print is news for another day.  (I hope they are doing better though.)

standards to take effect in 2015 to reduce almost all methane released from drilling. I don’t think the oil industry is against this new regulation from what I have read  so I don’t think anyone will try to kill it but time will tell. You likely know more than I as to the net costs of methane recovery after the sale of leaked methane that will be captured when the regulation begins. SoS Clinton has been meeting with countries that are involved in drilling in order to form a coalition to capture leaked methane and to significantly reduce black carbon emissions. I imagine that the EPA will require special filters on deisel trucks as they are a significant contributor to black carbon. My understanding is that this can be done inexpensively and I can’t forsee the trucking industry fighting the EPA on it.

The biggest initiative from my POV is the DOE challenge to produce solar panels  $1.00/watt installed as outlined here.

You can bank on this happening and progress has been very good as breakthrough technology leaps are already occurring. For instance the US has designed a new optical system for solar cells that increases efficiency from16% to 20% while reducing production costs and energy use. I personally know people working on nanotechnology which could eliminate the costly REEs involved in current solar panels and this will significantly reduce cell cost. I’m very optimistic that the US will accomplish an overall 20% reduction in GHGs by 2020 which was the original Waxman-Markey target under cap and trade. The USA has already cut by 7.7% according to the latest European reports and we only need to cut another 13.5% from now to 2020. As I said I’m very optimistic.

You didn’t stuff her body in a trash can somewhere did you?  (Joke)

This kind of response isn’t your MO.  Is there some sort of loop hole in the legislation?  Why the sudden change in direction?  What’s your angle?

Hmmm…  Of course, given the gas prices, drilling is slowing and a chunk of the industry is shifting to conventional wells. In 2015 they won’t be fracking nearly as much.

Yes, very suspicious. It seems someone has stolen Windy’s name somehow, even though we now have to register.

A positive constructive post from Windy?………What just happened?


I’m ever an optimist.

Good to see you posting an article about how raising oil prices and raising awareness about the damage from coal and the less damage Natural gas causes leads to less carbon emmisions.

Clearly form this article pricing carbon would have even a better impact!

This new study is a better research than the Dan Kurhan study, because they wen the one step further and asked the participants the most important question…..their political position.

As someone who has followed and debated this subject online for the past 10 years, I was optimistic (in my country at least) that those who opposed AGW were made up of people from all sides of the political spectrum and it was just a matter of education. After all, I spent 3 years being skeptical of AGW and writing dozens of emails to scientists around the world until I got my head around it. The next 10 were accepting it. But, the more people I talked to in person and online, the more I realised that opposition to AGW was nearly entirely political. 

I’ve personally met a few liberal people that are skeptical and even a few greens voters that are skeptical, but I have never met in person a conservative that accepts AGW. Most of my friends are conservatives and most are not moderates.

Dan Kurhan skirted around the issue by calling it “cultural commitments” i.e partisans:

“Even if cultural cognition serves the personal interests of individuals, this form of reasoning can have a highly negative impact on collective decision making. What guides individual risk perception, on this account, is not the truth of those beliefs but rather their congruence with individuals’ cultural commitments. As a result, if beliefs about a societal risk such as climate change come to bear meanings congenial to some cultural outlooks but hostile to others, individuals motivated to adopt culturally congruent risk perceptions will fail to converge, or at least fail to converge as rapidly as they should, on scientific information essential to their common interests in health and prosperity. Although it is effectively costless for any individual to form a perception of climate-change risk that is wrong but culturally congenial, it is very harmful to collective welfare for individuals in aggregate to form beliefs this way.”

He goes on to allude, that really, the only way you can convince people like this that are so entrenched, is to have others from the same political compass tell them, the science is real and there is a lot of interest for conservatives in doing something about it.

“It does not follow, however, that nothing can be done to promote constructive and informed public deliberations. As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups22. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance25.”

For conservatives, those values should be maintain the status quo ( you cant do that if things change can you?), be fiscally responsible (you cant do that if you have to fork out billions in repair costs) and support business ( you arent doing that if you support only one sector….fossil fuels).

Grist had two good articles on it which i think rings true:

John Cook mentions, this can often lead to the backfire effect. Deniers will go to WUWT, Hill, Audit,Nova, Depot and stock up on the myths. Conservative myths. Then armed with these myths search out pro side sites to test their myth. Once shot down, they retreat back to the denier sites to re-energize and gather more myths to try. I’m sure for some, sticking to the facts that John Cook mentions to, wins some over. 

But for many, they are either died in the wool politcal partisans or have ties to the fossil fuel industry. These people will only change their opinion if their employer does or their political party does. Their cultural commitments make it hard to see any other point of view.

At least Lawrence Hamilton went that one step further and actually asked the blindingly obvious and most essential question, where on the political compass are you? 

I would like to see a study performed across several countries asking the same questions and asking them in countries where there is a higher percentage of conservatives that accept AGW and where their political leaders accept the science. Like Germany, France, Finland, New Zealnd and the U.K. 

That would truly tell us if the most vociferous oppostion to AGW are mostly found in the USA, Canada and Australia and this is because these countries have more fossil fuels than most and the fossil fuel companies fund mostly conservative politicians. Who in turn defend their funding and in turn voters who are died in the wool partisans, defend their parties decisions and stand point on AGW.

Personally, I think more conservative politicians and scientists standing up and saying they accept AGW would do far more for the science of AGW and the need for CO2 mitigation, than battering deniers with all the facts in the world. Most are evidence immune.


I notice that much of the denier material is English and from the same sources.  In fact, the think tanks are getting their funding from the same sources, and even have the same message.  Many also wave the nationalism flag as well.

Yet Europe has a very green agenda, they don’t speak English natively so the penetration of denier garbage has to be considerably less.  (How’s Moncton’s Flemish?)  Its also kind of hard to wave the nationalism flag while talking a different language.  (Usually, that’s an invasion in disguise.)

So right now we see a huge support for climate change denial in Conservatives in English speaking countries.  US, Austrailia, Canada, New Zealand, UK (seems to be weaking).


This is really funny when you think about it;

I’m reminded of a driving story from BC.  It was snowing, and when it snows the warm weather land lubbers of BC realize they can’t drive straight or stop.  On the news, the police were explaining the sudden rash of accidents.    “You see, speed limit aside, we all have to obey the same laws of physics.

the answer to the “republican/con brain” problem obviously lies with the cause or causes of the “smart idiot effect”. 

Just as obvious, is the undeniable fact that the “smart” idiot and the apathy that results from their awareness of the potential harm from AGW, has only two plausible explanations – either they are inherently apathetic due to ideological influences, or they choose apathy as a means of preserving their integrity.  In the latter case, we see this pov propogated by the only semi-legitimate (I’m being generous with that description) voice they in their skeptic line-up, Lindzen. 

We know that humans are rapidly increasing the level of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, we know that this GHG increase is causing some amount of warming, and will continue to cause additional warming as long as GHG levels continue to rise.  The remaining relatively credible climate contrarians like Lindzen acknowledge these realities; where they differ from mainstream climate science is in exactly how much warming the GHG increase will cause.  This is known as the climate sensitivity - how much the planet will warm in response to increasing GHGs, including feedbacks.

This “while it’s warming, it’s not gonna be that bad” BS is the last bullwark between them and brutal reality they have, and it is likely one the “smart idiots” are indeed aware of in much greater numbers proportionally than the common “man on the street” rightwing flat earther, most of which are still stuck in the “Gorebal Warming” mentality.   It provides them some cover – as fragile and really, illusionary as it is – to deny the fact that education and the intelligence it takes to get one, serve as no bar to being idiotic. They’ve lost the debate, and are basically left with nothing but bruised egos and the shame of having been a part of obstructing action on the only real existential threat mankind has ever brought upon itself, other than full-scal nuclear war, or maybe also, building nuke plants on fault lines…

So, imo there’s no real disconnect between their knowledge level and apathy about the potential negative effects of AGW, because if the Lindzen pov is adopted and adhered to, there’s not much for them to be concerned about.

What’s important here, is that given the huge and demonstrated flaws in the Lindzen bullwark/BS, they are being intellectually dishonest by clinging to it. 

This in turn begs the question “Why are they clinging to the losing arguments?”

I see a heirarchy.  You have the monied/energyindustry interests that genuinely don’t give a damn about the negative effects even if they believe in them, which is why they’ve funded HeartlessLand, etc “thinkless tanks”, and then you have the “smart idiots” who have for ideological reasons, bought into their BS. The latter are obviously who were “polled”.

As noted already before on this topic, this has left them in the unpalatable position of inevitably having to accept and acknowledge they’ve been “had”, which is a much more difficult thing to accept in the intelligent and educated than for the common “moran” who can blame those they placed their trust in.  The intelligent and educated didn’t need any stinking trust, they looked at all the so-called “evidence”, and came to their own educated conclusions – that were dead wrong.

Now many stand to needlessly die because of the participatory role the “smart idiots” played, in assuming a leadership role and championing a wrong cause, which led to the political power that has resulted in the political inaction on the matter we’ve seen thusfar.

This is why I see morality being the proximate cause and explanation for the “rightwing brain” problem, which imo, differs not from that which afflicts many on the left as you noted. 

In other words, conservatives here are just showing a particularly extreme form of follies to which we are all susceptible.

From Desmogblog (share this quote)

Denial is ego preservation, and morality-based shame/self-disgust is by far the most damaging thing to one, and where is this most likely to occur than with issues that cost or negatively impact the quality of human life  -  that which most of us hold most sacred?

The reason why this problem is more pronounced on the rightwing side, is because collectively they can’t even adhere to the dictates of the “Good Book” they champion and upon which their “morality” rests with more issues than plight of the poor.  In the case of AGW, it’s the dictates regarding our stewardship of the planet.

This is why I’ve long compared the denizens of the darkside and this situation with the greatest lie attributed to Satan – that he doesn’t exist. They convince themselves and would have us believe their role and goal is to stamp out evil, as they by far are the  greatest perpetrators of it. 

And to the smart idiot, those evil AGW ameliorating regs, etc, are the greater evil than the “not too bad” effects of it, because they are gonna have some responsibility for the greater evil once it becomes manifest in the decades to come. 

The smart idiot suffers from a chronic illness, and one which is perhaps terminal for their ego, which certainly can’t remain completely intact once reality takes over.  It kinda reminds me of this

But keep digging Chris.  I’d love to have a comprehensive explanation for all of this.  Hindsight is no replacement for foresight, but remains far better than blindness.  Our children, etc deserve an explanation for and an understanding of, the world we leave them.  That your work so far poses an existential threat to their ideology in its current form no doubt explains their often pretty hilarious and idiotic responses to it.



Skeptics of CAGW are probably more aware of past failed predictions of environmental doom. There’s the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” report, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, after all the song birds have been poisoned, or anything that Paul Ehrlich has ever prognosticated.

I wonder if the “smart idiot” effect could be making the alarmist side more hysterical.

We’re talking science… not merchants of doom.  I detest the guy standing on the corner with the Bible as much as the next guy.  (What is this CAGW you keep using?  I’ve never seen it in the Global Warming literature.)

By all means… meet the scientists;

The IPCC report was written by 620 scientists, from 40 countries. They write almost a 1000 pages on the topic, which was reviewed by 400 scientists from 113 countries. The annual gathering is the largest in the world, over 15,000 scientists go to it every year.

The point is, this is hardly a singular individual which you are so much maligning in your post.  (I DON’T TRUST SINGULAR SOURCES AT ALL.)

Now here’s a great review of all the so called skeptic work;

To reiterate the principal conclusions of this series:

70% of the global warming skeptics identified, including some of the most outspoken, have no scientific publications that deny or cast substantial doubt on global warming.

None of the papers provides the “killer argument,” the one devastating fact that would falsify human-caused global warming. Each skeptic argument has been debunked in other peer-reviewed papers.

The skeptics have no plausible theory to explain the observed global warming.

Even though the evidence for human-caused global warming and the scientific consensus have grown stronger, no skeptic who wrote in the first half of the 1990s has recanted. To be a climate skeptic is to remain a skeptic.

In short, you got nothing backing you up.  Never mind the entertainment and joy you will receive if you actually read some of those papers.  (Tim Ball’s are hilarious!  He equates temperature to polar bears and then argues that temperatures aren’t changing if polar bear populations aren’t changing.  Apparently Tim Ball doesn’t know what a thermometer is.)

“(What is this CAGW you keep using?  I’ve never seen it in the Global Warming literature.)”

It’s the new term used on deniers blogs they are conditioning their readers to use. It’s probably a good thing, because they have moved on from AGW which they are now forced to accept to exagerating CAGW

They are increasingly accepting AGW, but now it’s “We don’t believe there will be any Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming”.

Pretty soon it will be  AAGW, Apocalyptic Anthropogenic Global Warming and BAGW, Biblical Anthropogenic Global Warming.


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