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Denial and distrust: explaining the partisan climate gap


Nowhere is the partisan politicization of science more pronounced than on the subject of climate change, with Republican and Democratic voters divided on whether climate change exists and how to address it. Existing research tends to explain the partisan climate gap through a process of manufactured doubt, with a network of corporate and conservative organizations using their considerable resources to spread denial about climate science among conservative and Republican voters. I argue that this explanation is incomplete and inconsistent with recent sociological research on scientific conflicts. I explore an alternative hypothesis for the partisan climate gap: distrust in science. I apply a Kitagawa-Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition analysis to a large non-probability sample of Democrats and Republicans (n = 1808) to examine the relative contributions of climate science denial and scientific distrust to the partisan climate gap. Results show that lower levels of trust in science among Republicans explain a larger amount of the partisan climate gap than does climate science denial, though the magnitude of the difference in relative contribution varies by specific policy. These findings suggest that understanding the partisan climate gap requires extending our view beyond the climate change countermovement and toward a broader examination of the anti-scientific dimensions of the US conservative movement. I conclude by discussing how focusing on distrust, in conjunction with science denial, can enrich the study of climate change and science communication.

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  1. Following Gauchat (2012), science here is defined as “a group of people, the organizations they belong to, and the professional boundary that central institutions in society agree is a source of credible expertise.” By science denial, I refer here to the “denial, skepticism, contrarianism, anti-science, doubt, dismissal” of scientific evidence through techniques such as “conspiracy theories, reliance on fake experts, selectivity in picking papers that in isolation seem to support claims, impossible expectations of what research can deliver, and misrepresentation and outright logical fallacies” (Björnberg et al. 2017). This is what Norgaard (2011) refers to as literal denial. Alternatively, other scholars emphasize ignorance rather than denial as a lens through which to understand the public’s response to climate change. While this is important and insightful literature, I treat it as a parallel set of ideas that address a unique set of social process that reach beyond questions of literal denial of climate science at the individual level and toward the processes through which “organizations can deliberately preclude, obfuscate, and deflect knowledge from emerging.” (Bowden, Nyberg, and Wright 2021:399).

  2. A table depicting the data against US census benchmarks can be found in the online supplementary materials.

  3. The alternative was also examined: where “not sure” was included with “support” to create an “oppose” variable rather than a “support” variable. This alternate structure for the dependent variable does not yield meaningfully different results. The partisan gap drops from 3.79 to 3.43, though these estimates are not statistically significantly different from one another. Additional, only one minor change occurs for which factors explain the partisan gap: affective polarization explains 1.4% of the partisan gap in this alternate model, while it has no explanatory power for the original composite policy model (Table 2).


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The author thanks Dr. Mariana Amorim for her considerable assistance with the analysis.

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D.B. is responsible for all work.

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Correspondence to Dylan Bugden.

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Bugden, D. Denial and distrust: explaining the partisan climate gap. Climatic Change 170, 34 (2022).

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  • Partisanship
  • Climate policy
  • Climate denial
  • Trust