Conceptions of Climate Change: Conversations with U.S. Conservatives

Authors: J. Michael Athay*, Clark University
Topics: Political Geography, Human-Environment Geography, United States
Keywords: climate change, qualitative methods, focus groups
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 12:40 PM / 2:20 PM
Room: Empire Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the United States, large, representative-sample surveys have classified public opinions on climate change into six segments ranging from “Alarmed” to “Dismissive” (Leiserowitz et al., 2013), revealing significant doubt among U.S. adults on climate scientists’ conclusion that climate change is real and human caused (Cook et al., 2013). Given the urgency of action in light of climate science’s findings (Allen et al., 2018), some social scientists have examined how best to tailor climate change communications to various segments of the U.S. population in an effort to build public support for climate action. For example, recent research has featured algorithms that allow researchers to reduce the number of survey questions required (from 36 to four) to classify research participants’ climate change opinions, overcoming a barrier to broader use in educational settings (Chryst et al., 2018). While such segmenting certainly has important use cases, we argue that large-sample quantitative surveys generally—and especially those relying on only four questions plus algorithms—can offer at best a partial understanding of climate change opinions. In this paper, we present the findings of a series of focus groups we conducted with political conservatives in six U.S. states in 2014 and 2018 and illustrate the types of knowledge that could be lost through exclusive or over-reliance on quantitative and/or algorithm-dependent ways of knowing. Our findings reveal a number of surprises about U.S. conservatives’ conceptions of climate change and underline the necessity of employing multiple methods in studying complex social phenomena.

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