Tea Party supporters score high on climate ideology, low on facts

Researchers find “ideological roots” for a false sense of understanding among US right wing faction

Icebergs in eastern Greenland (Flickr/ Mariusz Kluzniak)

Icebergs in eastern Greenland (Flickr/ Mariusz Kluzniak)

By Megan Darby

Melting polar icecaps have become emblematic of climate change.

In the highly polarised US debate, reports of ice shrinking or growing are used as ammunition on both sides.

Yet nearly half (47%) of people overestimate their grasp of the evidence, a study of polling data shows.

Among Tea Party supporters, 61% said they had “moderate” or “great” understanding of climate change but scored low on a factual test.

These are right wingers who support low taxes, minimal government and are strongly associated with scepticism about human-caused global warming.

“These patterns suggest that the false sense of understanding has ideological roots,” the researchers, from the University of New Hampshire, concluded.

“More directly than previous studies, these results support the conclusion that Tea Party supporters’ sense of understanding about climate change disproportionately reflects ideology rather than science knowledge.”

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Led by Lawrence Hamilton, the study draws on a series of surveys in New Hampshire 2010-15.

Early rounds included three questions on polar ice: two that had political implications and one that didn’t.

First they asked whether Arctic summer sea ice covered more or less area than 30 years ago.

Measurements show it has shrunk and seven out of ten respondents gave that answer. That topped 80% among Democrats fell as low as 40% for Tea Party supporters.

“We see some people rejecting scientific reports about melting Arctic sea ice,” the researchers commented, “and eager to accept weakly founded claims of recovery.”

Then pollsters invited people to speculate on how much a warming Arctic would impact weather where they lived. Democrats were notably more likely than Tea Partiers to say it would have “major effects”, with Republicans in the middle.

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To a multiple choice question on what will most affect sea level, people of all parties were similarly (un)likely to answer correctly. Only 30% identified Greenland and Antarctic land ice as having a bigger impact than Arctic sea ice or glaciers.

In later surveys, two more questions were added about the geography of the North and South Poles – uncontentious facts.

Some 38% of people knew the North Pole was characterised by floating sea ice. Less than half (46%) were aware that the South Pole was a landmass covered in thick ice. Only 8% correctly answered both these and the question on sea ice.

Meanwhile, 26% were confident they knew “a great deal” about climate change and 52% “a moderate amount”.

“Our surveys find a paradoxical combination of high self-assessed understanding of climate change with generally low knowledge of basic facts,” the report noted.

“The polar questions are by no means a broad test of climate knowledge, but they involve background information that anyone moderately well informed about climate should know.”

Arctic sea ice decline and sea level rise have featured high in public discussions on climate change, it went on.

“Someone paying little attention to the issue might have less reason to know North from South Pole, but anyone who is paying attention should have seen them discussed repeatedly.”

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