Clear link between climate scepticism and support for right-wing populists, study finds
12 January 2021
A study by Oxford University, carried out in partnership with the Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Germany, has found clear evidence of a link between people supporting right-wing political parties and climate change scepticism.
Based on survey data and tracking web browsing histories from over 9,000 participants in six countries, including the UK and the US, the study finds several significant differences in attitudes towards climate change between populist parties’ supporters and non-supporters. The study also highlights variations in the websites and content regularly used by supporters and those who do not support the parties.
The study, ‘Is there a link between Climate Change Scepticism and Populism?’ by Pu Yan, post-doctoral researcher Oxford Internet Institute, Professor Ralph Schroeder, Oxford Internet Institute and Sebastian Stier, Researcher, Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, is the first of its kind to test four hypotheses concerning political attitudes, climate activism, and online media diets and consumption, to see to what extent those variables have an impact on climate change scepticism.
The researchers found that support for right-wing parties is strongly linked to scepticism on climate issues and opposition to climate-friendly policies, with right-wing populists less likely to prioritise environmental concerns over economic growth. Contrary to expectations, the study didn’t find a link between support for left-wing populist parties and climate change denial, but did observe that respondents with less interest in political issues were more likely to be climate change sceptics.
Pu Yan, researcher, Oxford Internet Institute and lead author of the study said: ‘Our research shows supporters of right-wing political parties favour policies to tackle climate change to a significantly lesser extent than supporters of other parties. Whilst such parties might have a range of views, the common denominator is that they distrust the scientific consensus and put the needs of ‘the people’ before tackling climate change. Instead, they seek out alternative ‘scientific’ explanations which fit the populist worldview, downplaying the effects of climate change.”
In their study, published in journal Information, Communication and Society, the researchers also examined the media habits of supporters and non-supporters of populist parties, tracking over 150 million website visits over three months.
Key findings include:
- Supporters of left-wing and right-wing populist parties are more likely to visit news websites for climate change information than non-supporters of populist parties
- Right-wing populist supporters are twice as likely to consume hyper-partisan media content (20% of their top 50 website domains) than left-wing supporters (9.5% of their top 50 website domains)
- Science related websites account for over a tenth (11%) of non-news domains visited by right-wing populist party supporters
- Non-supporters of populist parties more likely to visit non-news website domains such as climate-related organisations websites
The study also looked at the effect of populism and country of residence on attitudes towards climate policies. Key findings include:
- Trump supporters have a lower probability of believing in human-made climate change and taking personal responsibility for tackling climate change
- Spanish supporters of right-wing parties are more likely to trust climate experts than their peers in other countries
- Right-wing populist party supporters in France are more likely to oppose tax increases on fossil fuels than in other countries
- Germans ranked climate change as the most pressing issue facing the country (21% of respondents) compared to all other social issues
- Brits rated immigration (16%) as the most important social issue affecting the country, closely followed by climate change (13%)
Professor Ralph Schroeder noted, “Our study shows that populists are highly interested in the politics of climate change. They seek a coherent worldview that bolsters their ideas about climate change and the science of climate change so that it fits their overall political agenda, anti-elite, and putting the interests of ‘the people’ first. Ultimately further research is needed to investigate the link between the evolving populist party cues about climate change and the beliefs of their supporters and more broadly, concerning their trust in online information and the fundamental structures of democracy’.
The full study, ‘Is There a Link between Climate Change Scepticism and Populism? An Analysis of Web Tracking and Survey Data from Europe and the US’ by Pu Yan, researcher, Oxford Internet Institute, Professor Ralph Schroeder, Oxford Internet Institute and Sebastian Stier, Researcher, Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, is published open access in the journal of Information, Communication and Society.
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Notes to Editors
About the research
The study combines a unique dataset – a survey of attitudes combined with analysis of web browsing histories of participants from 6 counties – the UK, France, German, Italy, Spain and the US. The web tracking data includes 150 million website visits over a 3-month period, March 15 to June 16 2019. The survey of 9625 participants took place between April 23-May 11, 2019. Survey participants were asked questions about their political attitudes, voting intentions and attitudes towards climate change.
The researchers also looked at the impact of demographic variables on attitudes towards climate change. Key findings include:
- Education and income levels are important socio-economic factors in models of attitudes towards climate policies as those with lower education levels more likely to be sceptical of climate change issues
- People with no religious beliefs were more likely to trust climate scientists and prioritise environmental protection over economic growth
- Women more likely than men to take personal responsibility for tackling the climate crisis
- Older generations less likely to believe climate change is due to human activities but more likely to take responsibility for tackling it than younger generations
- Rural dwellers more likely to prioritise protecting the environment than urban dwellers
About the Oxford Internet Institute (OII)
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good. https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/