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Study: Kentuckians’ Views On Climate Change Are Based On Politics

J. Tyler Franklin

A survey has found some interesting takeaways about Kentuckians’ attitudes toward climate change, including that the biggest influence on beliefs may be political affiliation rather than scientific knowledge.

There have been numerous studies about attitudes toward climate change around the country, but very few have looked at Kentucky specifically. For her master’s thesis at Kentucky State University, Jennifer Hubbard-Sanchez surveyed 229 Kentuckians about their climate change beliefs and knowledge.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that the earth’s climate is changing, and humans are contributing to that change. And Hubbard-Sanchez found that the majority of Kentuckians (about 70 percent) agree. But she also found some unexpected relationships between climate change beliefs and climate science knowledge.

Going into the study, Hubbard-Sanchez had three major hypotheses:

  • That those who self-identify as Democrats would be more likely to say that climate change is happening and is being caused by humans, while people who self-identify as Republicans would be less likely to come to those conclusions;
  • That people with a higher understanding of climate science would be more likely to believe that climate change is happening; and
  • That people with a higher understanding of climate science would be more likely to believe that climate change is being caused by humans.

These all seem like reasonable expectations, given that climate science overwhelmingly offers evidence to back up the existence of and human involvement in climate change.
But only Hubbard-Sanchez’s first hypothesis was supported by her study. Overwhelmingly, the factor that influenced how people felt about climate change and its causes was their political affiliation. In fact, she found that the Democrats who took her survey didn’t know as much about climate science as the Republicans did. And yet, despite their levels of knowledge, both Republicans and Democrats echoed their party lines.

“Democrats are saying ‘yes, this is happening,’ without knowing as much science,” Hubbard-Sanchez said. “And Republicans, who know more, their knowledge score was higher but their belief score was lower.”

She said this only emphasizes the social constructions that help shape people’s beliefs — and help them ignore information that doesn’t fit their world views.

“Basically what we found is it really is, if I am liberal-leaning or conservative-leaning, my beliefs are going to be constructed by what I’m hearing around me, what leaders say, politicians say, what our friends think,” Hubbard-Sanchez said.

And her research has implications for people who teach climate science in Kentucky. She said the prevailing thought has always been that educating people about mainstream climate science would increase their conviction that the earth’s climate is changing, and is partially due to human activity. But it’s more complicated than that, and Hubbard-Sanchez said educators are going to have to be creative in order to overcome deeply-entrenched social constructs.

“What mother, liberal or not, conservative or not, what mom does not care about her children’s health and what her children are eating and access to safe and healthy food?” Hubbard-Sanchez asked. “All of those things are projected to change significantly over the next century. So I think talking about it in those terms [will help], as opposed to just ‘climate change 101, let’s talk about greenhouse gases and glaciers and all of those things.’”

Hubbard-Sanchez said there’s a lot more research that could be done in Kentucky around climate change attitudes. She’s hoping to have her thesis published this year.

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