Cognitions about climate change are highly relevant for climate change mitigation for at least two reasons (Gifford 2011): First, people unaware of or skeptic about the existence, origins and impacts of climate change are unlikely to take measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions or support public policies to protect the climate. Second, even among those who are aware of the problem, a lack of knowledge about the cause and extent of climate change may lead to ignorance about which (individual and collective) actions are available and how effective different actions are. Sound knowledge about climate change and the options for ameliorating is thus an important precondition for effective climate policy.
Action-relevant cognitions about climate change are shaped by several factors. An obvious source of more accurate knowledge about climate change is better education. Indeed, educational attainment has long been identified as a consistent predictor of environment-related perceptions and concerns (e.g. Dietz et al. 1998), and a meta-analysis of close to 200 polls and academic studies has revealed that education is one of the strongest correlates of the belief in climate change (Hornsey et al. 2016). More recently, cognitions about the existence, origins and impacts of climate change have been found to display a strong left-right ideological divide in many countries, with adherents to the left expressing greater belief in and concern about climate change than adherents to the right (e.g. McCright et al. 2015, McCright et al. 2016, Hornsey et al. 2016, Hornsey et al. 2018). Indeed, political ideology and affiliation are stronger predictors of climate change belief than any other demographic variable (Hornsey et al. 2016).
The psychological mechanism behind the association between ideological identity and climate change beliefs is identity-protective cognition (Kahan et al. 2007), that is, people adjust their beliefs and world views to their personal and social identities in order to minimize cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957). The techniques employed in forming identity-protective cognitions include individuals’ differentially attending to (through selective exposure or avoidance) and/or processing (through motivated reasoning) information (e.g. Garrett et al. 2011, Kunda 1990, respectively) in a way that agrees with their values and world views. Due to identity-protective cognition, division in terms of ideological position may translate into division of climate change beliefs.
As shown by Kahan et al. (2017a), politically polarized views on science in the U.S. are better explained by identity-protecting cognitive strategies than by the competing hypothesis of deficits in the public’s capacity to comprehend scientific evidence. In addition – contrary to conventional expectations – ideology-dependence of climate change cognitions has been found to be stronger rather than weaker in individuals with greater science literacy and numeracy, on the grounds that these abilities facilitate adjustment of beliefs to identity through selection and processing of information (Kahan et al. 2017a).
Considering that science literacy and numeracy may be related to general educational attainment, this finding suggests that a higher level of education may foster rather than attenuate the identity-dependence of climate change cognitions. Consistent with this view, Czarnek et al. (2020) found the ideological divide of climate change cognitions in developed countries to be increasing in individuals’ years of education, whereas the evidence is ambiguous with respect to less developed countries.
While the bulk of the literature on identity-protective climate change cognitions focused on ideological identity (political affiliation or position on the left-right scale), one recent paper (Welsch 2021) has studied the relationship between moral identity and climate change cognitions. Drawing on so-called moral foundations theory (Haidt and Joseph 2007, Graham et al. 2011, Haidt 2012), the paper found significant relationships between beliefs which foster climate friendly behaviors and the endorsement of universalist (individual-focused) -- as opposed to parochial (group-focused) -- moral values. Specifically, individuals hold stronger beliefs that climate change has bad impacts the more they endorse the moral values of Fairness and Liberty (universalist values) and the less they endorse Authority and Sanctity (parochial values). Importantly, these relationships hold even when controlling for ideological identity (position on the left-right scale).
It should be noted that much of the work on ideology-dependent cognition, motivated reasoning, and the moderating role of science literacy and numeracy focused on North American populations (e.g., Kahan et al. 2007, Kahan et al. 2017a). Analyzing data from 25 developed and emerging countries, Hornsey et al. (2018) found relationships between climate skepticism and 5 ideological variables to be statistically significantly stronger in the U.S. than in the pool of 24 other nations. The relationships also tended to be stronger in 5 English speaking nations (other than the U.S.) than in the 24-nation pool, but not significantly so. At the level of individual countries, the relationship between climate skepticism and more right-leaning ideology was positive in 19 out of 25 countries (significantly so in 7 countries). While there does not seem to be evidence on the moderating role of science literacy and numeracy in the cognition-ideology relationship outside the U.S. (Kahan et al. 2017a), Czarnek et al. (2020) found a significant moderating role of the related notion of educational attainment in a set of 22 European countries. With respect to the relationship between climate change cognitions and moral identity, a moderating role for science literacy and numeracy or education has not been studied as yet.
The present paper studies the role for climate change cognitions of ideological identity, moral identity, and cognitive ability jointly. It augments the literature on climate change cognitions, identity, and cognitive skills and abilities in several ways. First, it extends the evidence on the ideology-cognition-ability relationship (Kahan et al. 2017a) from a small U.S. sample to a large representative European sample. Second, in focusing on the morality-cognition nexus it studies a larger set of climate change cognitions than previously considered (Welsch 2021). Third, using educational attainment as a measure of cognitive ability, it studies for the first time the role of cognitive ability as a potential moderator of the morality-cognition relationship. Finally, it discusses climate policy conclusions, drawing on the notion of the “tragedy of the science communication commons” (Kahan 2017, Kahan et al. 2017b).
The empirical analysis uses about 30,000 observations for 23 European countries from Round 8 of the European Social Survey (ESS) and involves four climate change cognitions (the world climate is changing; climate change is caused by human activities; climate change has bad impacts; reducing personal-level energy use can reduce climate change), individuals’ placement on the left-right scale, and individuals’ endorsement of six moral foundations (Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity/Sanctity).
Key findings and conclusions
The key findings and conclusions can be summarized as follows:
Action-relevant climate change cognitions of European citizens are shaped not only by ideological identity (left-right) but by moral identity (universalist-parochial), where more right-leaning individuals and those with a more parochial (group-focused) morality display greater climate skepticism than more left-leaning individuals and those with a more universalist (individual-focused) morality.
In contrast to popular views, more education is not on its own a solution to climate denial, as a higher level of education is associated with higher rather than lower ideology and morality dependence of important climate change cognitions.
To minimize harmful identity dependence, climate cognitions and climate policy should be sheltered from being fused with antagonistic policy issues such as state interference or national sovereignty.
To attenuate the morality-related divide, climate change mitigation should be (re)framed such as to establish an accord between mitigation and the moral values that are presently associated with climate skepticism (for instance framing degradation of the climate system as a violation of Purity/Sanctity).
In more detail, multiple regression analysis reveals that all cognitions studied are significantly negatively related to a more right-leaning ideological position and significantly positively related to stronger endorsement of Fairness, whereas all but one cognitions are significantly negatively related to stronger endorsement of Authority and Sanctity. Similar to the literature on the role of science literacy, the paper finds that the ideology dependence of the cognitions studied is significantly stronger in individuals with a tertiary education (that is, a bachelor degree or higher). In addition to the ideology-cognition relationships, 9 of the 24 morality-cognition relationships are also significantly stronger in individuals with tertiary education. In particular, the cognitions that climate change is human-made and that climate change impacts are bad are more morality dependent in individuals with better education than in less educated people. In contrast to the latter cognitions, the belief that the climate is changing is—on balance—less morality dependent in better educated than in less well educated people. The level of education per se is positively related to the cognitions that the climate is changing, that climate change is human-made, and that climate change impacts are bad. The role of better education in shaping climate change cognitions is thus ambiguous as better education per se improves climate knowledge but tends to amplify biases in the relevant cognitions that result from identity-protective information selection and processing.
Observing that Fairness falls into the category of universalist (individual-focused) moral foundations whereas Authority and Sanctity are constitutive of a parochial (group-focused) morality (Graham et al. 2011, Haidt 2012), it can be noted that in addition to the familiar ideology-related divide in climate change cognitions there is a divide between adherents to a universalist and a parochial morality and that the level of education tends to widen rather than narrow both types of divide.
Organization of the paper
The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. The “Method” section presents the data and empirical strategy. The “Results” section presents the results. The “Discussion and climate policy conclusions” section offers a discussion and some climate policy conclusions.