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Solving the climate change attitude mystery

- March 10, 2011

Henry’s entry yesterday about public opinion on climate change reminded me of a discussion we had a couple years ago on the political polarization of elites.

Brandon Keim wrote,

Over the last year and a half, the number of Americans who believe the Earth is warming has dropped. The decline is especially precipitous among Republicans: in January 2007, 62 percent accepted global warming, compared to just 49 percent now. . . . The confounding part: among college-educated poll respondents, 19 percent of Republicans believe that human activities are causing global warming, compared to 75 percent of Democrats. But take that college education away and Republican believers rise to 31 percent while Democrats drop to 52 percent.

That strikes me [Keim] as deeply weird. I don’t even have a snarky quip, much less an explanation.

This does seem a bit weird: you might think that college grads are more likely to go with the scientific consensus on global warming, or you might think that college grads would be more skeptical, but it seems funny that it would go one way for Democrats and the other for Republicans.

Things become clearer when I looked at the graph (which was thoughtfully presented next to Keim’s article):


Among college grads, there is a big partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. Among non-graduates, the differences are smaller. This is completely consistent with research that shows that people with more education are on average more politically polarized (see, for example, figure 9a of my paper with Delia). Basically, higher educated Democrats are more partisan Democrats, and higher educated Republicans are more partisan Republicans. On average, educated people are more tuned in to politics and more likely to align their views with their political attitudes.

From this perspective, it’s really not about the scientific community at all, it’s just a special case of the general phenomenon of elites being more politically polarized (a phenomenon that we discuss in chapter 8 of Red State, Blue State and which is related to regional divisions in political attitudes).

P.S. I followed the link from Andrew Sullivan. And here’s the detailed Pew report (and, remember, Pew gives out raw data!).