Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green

From Making Sense of—and Progress in—the American Culture War of Fact

Individuals’ expectations about the policy solution to global warming strongly influences their willingness to credit information about climate change. When told the solution to global warming is increased antipollution measures, persons of individualistic and hierarchic worldviews become less willing to credit information suggesting that global warming exists, is caused by humans, and poses significant societal dangers. Persons with such outlooks are more willing to credit the same information when told the solution to global warming is increased reliance on nuclear power generation….

We … devoted considerable attention to figuring out precisely why culture exerts this effect, and whether anything might be done to counteract the resulting cultural polarization on global warming beliefs. We conducted an experiment, the results of which show that the impact of culture on the processing of factual information on climate change is highly conditional what sort of policy people anticipate will be used to address it.

In the experiment, subjects were supplied with one of two versions of a newspaper article reporting a study by a group of scientific experts. In both versions, the report was described as finding that the temperature of the earth is increasing, that humans are the source of this condition, and that this change in the earth’s climate could have disastrous environmental economic consequences. In one, however, the scientific report was described as calling for “increased antipollution regulation,” whereas in another it was described as calling for “revitalization of the nation’s nuclear power industry.”

The results of the experiment showed that subjects receiving the “nuclear power” version of the article were less culturally polarized than ones receiving the “anti-pollution” version. That is, individualists and hierarchs who received the “nuclear power” version were less inclined to dismiss the facts related by the described report—that the earth’s temperature was increasing, that humans were the cause, and that the consequences would be dire if global warming were not reversed—than were individualists and hierarchs who got the “antipollution” version, even though the factual information, and its source, were the same in both articles. Indeed, individualists and hierarchs who received the “antipollution” version of the news report were even more skeptical about these facts than were hierarchs and individualists in a control group that received no newspaper story—and thus no information relating to the scientific report that made these findings.

Translation: when it sounds to me as if others are willing to change their minds about nuclear power, then the situation must be serious. When it sounds to me as if they are using the cause d’jour for more of the same, I tend to disbelieve.

It’s long been my observation that while many accept that climate change is serious, they don’t accept that climate change is serious because little is asked of us. We aren’t asked to change our manner of living substantially, we aren’t asked to change our favorite solutions, or our favorite demons.

When Union of Concerned Scientists changes its views on nuclear power because of concerns about climate change, both environmentalists and anti-environmentalists in the US will move climate change higher up our to-do list.

To Do list
figure credit

3 Responses to “Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green”

  1. Joffan says:

    So – if I follow the argument – a very convincing proof of climate change (for many people out there) would be Greenpeace agreeing to nuclear power because it is a lesser risk. Convincing precisely because that would be a painful option for them.

    Contrariwise; if Greenpeace urge us to (say) use fewer plastic bags “becaue of global warming”, that suggests climate change is just an excuse to get us to do what they’ve always wanted anyway.

  2. Karen Street says:

    Yes. To me it appears that all of us see more of the same vs a change of opinion similarly.

    Imagine if economists who have long said that we can do it all with technology begin to advise us to look at our manner of living, and stop flying themselves. Imagine if VP Cheney does so!!

    One of the more powerful statements that people can make is, “I have changed my mind” even though I didn’t want to.

  3. I am planning to make another run at David Roberts of Gristmill. I also will be making a guest post on the secondary benefits of nuclear power on Harry’s Place, a well known British political blog.