Values determine beliefs

Many environmentalists believe that big business is responsible for the worst forms of environmental damage, that, left alone, the free market cannot fix the problems and that government intervention is essential. In the case of global warming they also believe that only international cooperation, including legally binding obligations on the major polluters, can solve the problem. In these views environmentalists are perhaps not far from the views of most citizens of developed countries, including US citizens.32 Others go further to argue that the system itself is at fault, tracing ecological decline to uninhibited corporate power, the structural compulsion to grow, technological determinism and the allure of the consumer life.

So neo-conservatives were right to identify environmental-ism, and its hold on the public imagination, as a threat to their worldview and political aspirations. Peter Jacques and colleagues argue that this challenge to conservative values generated 'a sustained anti-environmental counter-movement' in the United States that soon became 'institutionalised in a network of influential conservative think tanks funded by wealthy conservative foundations and corporations'.33 In the United States, if not elsewhere, the effectiveness of associating global warming advocates with a view of the world hostile to conservative values has served to polarise the debate and break down the broad public consensus on climate science. The campaign by the Clinton Administration in the fall of 1997 to build public support for an agreement at the upcoming Kyoto conference saw the global warming issue drawn into a bitter process of political polarisation, one that caused Republican and conservative citizens to adopt or harden a belief against human-induced climate change.34

In 1997 there was little difference between Republican and Democrat voters in views on global warming. But by 2008 a wide gulf had opened up. For example, in 1997 52 per cent of Democrats believed that the effects of warming had already begun, and 48 per cent of Republicans agreed. Reflecting the accumulation of stronger scientific evidence, by 2008 the proportion of Democrats taking this view had risen from 52 to 76 per cent, while the proportion of Republicans agreeing had fallen from 48 to 42 per cent.35 A 4 per cent gap had become a 34 per cent gap. By 2008, 59 per cent of Republicans believed that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated in the news, up from 37 per cent in 1997. Among Democrats, only 17 per cent held this belief in 2008, down from 27 per cent in 1997.

In an era of intense ideological division, rejection of global warming had for some Americans become a means of consolidating and signalling their cultural identity, in the way that beliefs about patriotism, welfare and musical tastes do. A recent study by Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf and Anthony Leiserowitz used statistical techniques to divide Americans into six distinct groups or global warming audiences—the Alarmed (18 per cent of the population), Concerned (33 per cent), Cautious (19 per cent), Disengaged (12 per cent), Doubtful (11 per cent) and Dismissive (7 per cent).36

Although mostly indistinguishable by demographic criteria, the groups differ markedly in their values and political and religious beliefs. In sum:

The segments that are more concerned about global warming tend to be more politically liberal and to hold strong egalitarian and environmental values. The less concerned segments are more politically conservative, hold anti-egalitarian and strongly individualistic values, and are more likely to be evangelical with strongly traditional religious beliefs.37

Among the Alarmed—defined as those most convinced warming is real and a serious threat and who worry about it a fair amount or a great deal—48 per cent regard themselves as politically liberal and only 14 per cent conservative, with the rest (38 per cent) 'moderate'. At the other end of the spectrum, among the Dismissive—who do not accept that warming is real and who regard themselves as being well informed about it but wholly unconcerned—76 per cent say they are conservative and only 3 per cent liberal. The correspondence in beliefs is shown in the figure (from which 'moderates' are excluded).38 The way in which concern about global warming declines consistently as political views shift to the right is striking.

The strong association between political ideology and responses to global warming is reflected in attitudes to issues that typically divide left and right in the United States. The Alarmed group is much more likely than the Dismissive group to believe that the world would be more peaceful if wealth were more equally divided among nations (62 per cent versus 12 per cent); they are more likely to support government programs to get rid of poverty (85 per cent versus 30 per cent); and they are less likely to believe that government regulation of business usually does more harm than good (31 per cent versus 87 per cent).39 Predictably, the Alarmed are much more likely to favour environmental

Shares of liberals and conservatives in each global warming group (%)

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