On this episode of Free Range, Mike Livermore speaks with Jennifer Cole and Michael Vandenbergh. Dr. Cole is a postdoctoral scholar in social psychology at the Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network, and Professor Vandenbergh is the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law at the Vanderbilt University Law School. Their work examines the political polarization of climate change and covid policies.
To start off, Livermore asks his guests how they stay positive when studying something as divisive as the politicization of climate change. Vandenbergh explains the concept of “solution aversion,” which happens when individuals are aware of a solution but are wary of the means to achieve it. Cole then describes how this problem can be avoided by leveraging group polarization to shift perspectives and uses this example to talk about the field of social psychology, generally, and what her work focuses on, specifically (:40 – 5:16). This leads to a discussion about the state of polarization in both climate issues and covid issues. Climate change, Vandenbergh says, has become so polarized that it can essentially serve as substitute for all other political views, across the social spectrum. Cole then defines the concept of “pluralistic ignorance,” or the gap that exists between what a group actually believes and what others think that groups believe. In the case of climate change, people think Republicans as a group do not believe in climate change, but research demonstrates that a substantial number of Republicans agree with the scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is occurring. The guests then explain how societal reactions to covid have paralleled those to climate change. Cole found that rather than treating covid as a shared threat, people responded to it with the same level of political polarization that they have to climate change (5:18 – 14:02). This leads to an extended discussion about the disconnect between party bases and party elites. Vandenbergh suggests some tactics that party elites can engage in to attempt to shift the position of a party base, such as appealing to primary voters or appearing on popular media platforms. This part of the conversation then segues into an explanation of how party leaders can control messaging before an issue becomes broadly accepted amongst the party’s base (14:05 – 29:38). Moving away from a focus on party elites, Livermore asks what kind of strategy would be optimal to change perceptions amongst a party’s base. Vandenbergh emphasizes how stressing private sector action can be quite helpful, particularly in the case of something like climate change, while Cole says the research suggests discussing issues more often can actually lead to shifts in mindset. (29:46 – 36:49) The conversation concludes with Livermore posing the hypothetical of a conservation group that, in all other issues, is conservatively-oriented, and asking why it is difficult to envision such an organization existing in our current climate. Vandenbergh counters that there are some Republicans engaged in the climate change space, while also arguing that the real focus should be on those organizations that are complying with their ESG commitments, and using that as a tool to urge non-compliant organizations to fall in line. Cole suggests that climate change-focused organizations may be able to use conservative terminology and appeal to conservative morality to appeal to conservatives, even if the organization more broadly does not align itself with conservative ideology (36:53 – 43:07).
Professor Michael Livermore is the Edward F. Howrey Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law. He is also the Director of the Program in Law, Communities and the Environment (PLACE), an interdisciplinary program based at UVA Law that examines the intersection of legal, environmental, and social concerns.