Politics, religion trump science in shaping climate change views

When you hear that more Native Americans than ranchers and farmers believe climate change is happening, it’s easy to assume you know why. Native Americans are naturally more aware of climate change because they’re more intimately tied to the environment, right?

William Smith

Not necessarily, says University of Nevada-Las Vegas anthropology professor Dr. William J. Smith, Jr. Ranchers and farmers also live on the land, where they’re observing many of the same shifts that tribal communities are, such as more frequent drought. Yet, in a study Smith led comparing views about climate change of the Pyramid Lake Paiute—Nevada’s largest Indian tribe—and Nevada ranchers and farmers, tribal members were not only more likely to say change is occurring (73% vs. 60% of ranchers and farmers), but also that it’s already harming them (51% vs. 27%).

So, what does explain the discrepancy between these two rural Nevada groups? Political affiliation accounts for much of it, report Smith and his co-authors in a recent issue of the journal Environmental Science & Policy. Seventy-three percent of ranchers and farmers who responded to the study’s survey identified as Republican, for instance, whereas only 5% of tribal respondents did. And Republican ranchers and farmers were far less likely than their Democratic and independent counterparts to say that climate change is occurring.

Moreover, Republican respondents often expressed mistrust of “big government,” as well as of researchers who receive federal money to study climate change. “So one thing that is really clear to me about ranchers and farmers is that they don’t trust the messenger,” Smith says.

Religious beliefs also affected the results. Generally speaking, tribal members think people pay attention to climate change because “the Creator made this earth for us, and if we want to honor God, then we need to take care of the gifts bestowed on us,” Smith says. Ranchers and farmers, on the other hand, tend to believe God made the earth a certain way and that it’s arrogant to think we can interfere with his plan.

In other words, people’s perceptions of climate change and its impacts have less to do with science and data and more to do with politics, values, and trust. That may be a frustrating message for scientists to hear. But Smith knows from his work with tribal groups that scientists must appreciate where people are coming from if they ever hope to interact with them in meaningful ways or win support for adaptation or policy measures.

“There has to be a certain level of trust between the parties involved,” he says. “So we may need to spend more time on that, and less time on what people generally think we need, which is more science, more information, and more maps. That alone isn’t going to cut it.”

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