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[Mark Buchanan] Virus could sway climate change doubters

If the coronavirus pandemic has made one thing clear, it’s that knowledge, preparation and science matter. Political spin can win elections and keep millions of people misinformed, but it doesn’t sway the forces of nature, of which infectious disease is one.

“Reality must take precedence over public relations,” as the American physicist Richard Feynman put it in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, “for nature cannot be fooled.”

Post-pandemic, one might hope that individuals and government leaders will take note and put old-fashioned preparation back on the list of our priorities. Aside from taking steps to avoid future pandemics -- and there will be more -- the most obvious major risk to prepare for is global warming, over which nations have dithered for decades.

In the US, of course, the biggest obstacle to action is the fossil fuel industry and its close allies in the Republican Party. Polls from late 2019 found that only around 20 percent of Republicans think climate change should be a top priority, compared to nearly 80 percent of Democrats. This is an enduring difference, mostly unchanged since 2013, despite the increasingly frequent wildfires, floods and other violent climate-related events unfolding before our eyes.

It can seem futile even to hope that things might change. And yet, the attitudes of Republican voters may be less rigid than we’ve been led to believe. A recent study found far more fluctuation over time in Republican attitudes toward climate change than shows up in the usual polls. And the chances for serious near-term change could be higher than we think.

Social scientists know that prevailing views can change rapidly because of social conformity. If some people changing their views make others a little more likely to do the same, this can trigger a cascading shift of opinion. Such was the case with secondhand smoke in the US and Europe, for example, where a minority view was quickly adopted by a significant majority. At least, it’s possible -- if many people have fairly flexible views, rather than being impervious to any change of opinion.

Of course, “impervious” is the prevailing stereotype of the Republican mindset on climate. But this is not what fine-grained polling data actually show. In a recent paper, political scientist Hank Jenkins-Smith of the University of Oklahoma and colleagues analyzed a large panel study of voters in Oklahoma that asked the same questions quarterly from the middle of 2014 to the middle of 2018. The responses, like other polling data, show that the average views of Republican voters did not change -- they were, on consensus, doubters and disbelievers of climate change.

Yet closer analysis of individual responses found something else. Republicans’ individual views actually changed quite frequently, with fully 41 percent of Republicans shifting from believing to disbelieving, or vice versa, at least once during the four-year study period. For Democrats, the corresponding number was only 19 percent. So while Democratic views seem settled into a relatively stable equilibrium on climate change -- perhaps based on their trust in the consensus scientific view -- Republican voters’ views appear to be more fluid.

Such poll-based research is prone to erroneous interpretations. But these researchers were very careful to rule out alternative conclusions, such as the possibility that Republicans simply change their views on any topic more frequently than Democrats do. That doesn’t show up in polling data on other issues, such as education, crime and health care. Or that Republicans care so little about the climate issue that they give careless and sloppy responses. The study controlled for that, too, and found that the variability of Republican responses actually went up the longer they thought before responding.

So it seems that Republican doubters aren’t as rigidly fixed in their skepticism as many of us believe. It turns out there’s vast uncertainty and doubt in the Republican mind. “Republicans,” as the researchers wrote, “are tweaking and updating their climate attitudes at yearly or monthly intervals.” So there may be hope that Republican resistance to climate action could dwindle quite quickly.

The coronavirus pandemic has delivered sharp and painful reminders of our collective vulnerability and the value of paying very close attention to reality. If there’s any good to come out of the current tragedy, it may be in helping to persuade a few people to help tip the scales and get our leaders to take the next looming issue much more seriously.

Mark Buchanan
Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book “Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics.” -- Ed.