Academics have suggested that people who tend to accept conspiracy theories also underplay or reject the science showing humans are causing rapid and dangerous climate change. But a new study by University of Queensland psychology professor Matthew Hornsey that tested this idea across 24 different countries found the link between so-called “conspiratorial ideation” and “climate scepticism” only really holds in the US.
There’s been a general acceptance that people who have broadly conservative or rightwing ideologies tend to rail against climate science because it rubs their worldview up the wrong way. That is, that tackling climate change will require broad interventions from governments. But Hornsey’s study finds that “there is nothing inherent to conspiratorial ideation or conservative ideologies that predisposes people to reject climate science”.
Instead, it suggests vested interests have managed to reshape the conservative identity with “ignorance-building strategies” in two countries – the US and Australia.
He explained, " A lot of the big business interests that are threatened by climate change are situated in the US. The link between conservatism and climate scepticism only emerges in countries that are economically threatened by the notion of responding to climate change. When the vested interests are high (in terms of the fossil fuel industry, for example) then there is more of a motivation for big business to engage in an organised campaign of misinformation around climate change. These campaigns often develop as a collaboration between the fossil fuel industry and conservative think-tanks, media and politicians, and are designed to “coach” conservatives to believe that the climate science is not yet settled. From this perspective, conservatives don’t spontaneously feel the need to reject climate science; they only do so when they are taking their cues from conservative elites, and these cues only emerge when the economic stakes are high. America has an unusually intense brand of conservatism, one that has a particularly strong opposition to government interference in the free market. Climate science is a nightmare for these people, because in some ways it does imply a big-government response designed to regulate industry."
Hornsey continues, "It’s all about vested interests. When the vested interests are high, the fossil fuel industry and conservative thinktanks, media and politicians collaborate in an organised campaign of misinformation. In my data, the link between conservatism and scepticism is really only obvious in countries with high per capita carbon emissions. If you think of per capita carbon emissions as a measure of how fossil fuel reliant a country is, then this makes sense. In countries with low fossil fuel reliance – where the vested interests are low – then there’s no need to kick off a campaign of misinformation, and no motivation to believe one either. In the 1980s you didn’t see conservatives get upset about governments shutting down CFCs to protect the ozone layer. Technically the issue was the same – government regulations curbing the freedom of industry – but because the vested interests were low there was no need for conservative elites to fight back."