Updated: Feb 21, 2021
The topic of climate change has evolved to become a divisive topic amongst many Americans. How we should deal with it, if at all, is certainly one of the contributing factors to this polarization. But beyond these proposed solutions is the outright denial of it. Currently, over 97% of scientists who have studied climate change agree that it exists and that it is, for the most part, human-caused. With this much scientific consensus pointing to the existence of climate change, why do so many people still refute it?
Irregardless of politicians’ stances on climate change, they need to make sure people believe them and vote for them—because no matter how much money is influencing their campaigns, they still need public support so that they can actually get elected. This is where political socialization comes into play, which is the process by which people form political identities, values, and behavior. To be able to process information to form their own beliefs, they need to get that information first. Politically biased sources of information—whether it be family, friends, school, advertisement, geographic location—all add to the political socialization of an individual.
There are a few ways that people can be politically socialized. One is framing, when information is presented in a way that influences the effect it has on the other person. The go-to term for rising temperatures used to be “global warming,” but conservative strategist Frank Luntz pushed for Republicans to use the term “climate change” because it sounded less threatening. But this term was adopted by Democrats due to its greater inclusivity of environmental factors arising from higher temperatures, as opposed to “global warming.” But “climate change” is so often refuted that it’s become a polarizing term with a downplayed meaning. Hence, Democrats have recently adopted another term called the “climate crisis,” which adds a greater sense of urgency to the conversation. Another way people sometimes address the topic of climate change is by referring to it as “change in climate” or “change in weather.” In order to offer an explanation for worsening environmental disasters like hurricanes and flooding, there needs to be a term for rising global temperatures. But because of the political weight carried by the term “climate change,” many people avoid it and instead rephrase it to address the topic.
Then there’s the spread of false information, whether it be through speeches, articles, interviews: altering information in order to support either side of the argument is what makes it easier for people to believe the respective side. Conspiracy sites that offer many theories often without scientific support are sometimes mistaken as factual by the uninformed. For example, the site Natural News produced the climate change content that got the most engagements in 2019. Despite being named as a fake news site in multiple sources, one of its false articles has gotten over 4 million views over the past few years. It was one that inaccurately informed how NASA admitted climate change occurred because of changes in the earth’s orbit and not because of fossil fuels. While some browse news sources to look for information that supports their stances, others that just want to learn more about a topic can be swayed by falsified information that comes from politicians and news sources.
Along with fake news, withholding information is similar in that those affected do not get to see the whole story of something, so it can be hard to paint an accurate picture when missing so many pieces of the puzzle. Today, a prevalent example of withholding information comes from school textbooks, which are made by just a few publishers, but influence the thinking of millions of students in the U.S. While some have inaccurate statistics about climate change consensus, others frame climate change to be merely a hypothesis or a false occurrence. There’s also the textbooks that teach about the seriousness of the topic and others that outright avoid it completely. If children aren’t taught to have a full understanding of climate change but think that they do, they’re more likely to make and follow uneducated, unbacked claims about it.
Disinformation, along with the other forms of political socialization, is what causes such a big divide in the American people on the climate change conversation because they’re receiving and processing this information differently. As for politicians, there are a number of factors that cause them to hold the stances they do. They could hold their stances because they genuinely believe them, or those stances could be a form of political manipulation as well. For example, a Republican politician could think climate change is an important issue, but in order to get support from the GOP, they need to push for similar ideals and agendas—and the opposite could happen for a Democrat as well. In addition to political power-plays, lobbying, PAC funding, and huge donors also have an influence on how politicians run their platforms. And sometimes when constituents see these figures‘ stances, they start agreeing with them and interpret information in a way that supports their ideals, increasing the growing polarization on the issue of climate change.