OUR WARMING EARTH
The week of April 17, 2016
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How ‘echo chambers’ lead to government inaction on climate change

By Aaron Sankin

study published last year in the journal Nature Climate Change found that, at least when it comes to climate change, Congress functions a lot like Facebook.

See, earlier in 2015, data scientists at Facebook published a study in the journal Science that found that liberals largely tend to read and share news articles written by liberal news sources, and conservatives tend to read and share news articles written by conservative news sources. Facebook insisted that if people on the left and those on the right are living in their own respective worlds, those informational cages were largely ones of their own choosing.

Similar echo chambers exist on Capitol Hill, too, the study found, especially when it comes to environmental policymaking.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, the University of Exeter, and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, the Nature Climate Change study found a pair of echo chambers, one on each side of the climate change debate. Climate change skeptics largely obtain information from other climate change skeptics, of which there are few. The global warming believers, on the other, have almost the entire scientific community on their side, so they have a wealth of sources from which to draw.

“On both sides, there are echo chambers. It’s not just that there is an echo chamber on the side that is challenging the science of climate change,” says study coauthor Lorien Jasny. “What we do find, though, is that specific minority positions, particularly against the consensual science on climate change, tend to be amplified and distorted through these echo chambers—especially around challenging the science of climate change.”

“Social structures that increase partisanship and extremity in these views do little else but hamper political and scientific progress.”

Fueling the conservative climate change echo chamber, says Jansy, is a recycling of data that challenges the accepted science of climate change, “so it seems like there are a lot of people who are saying the same thing. And they are because it’s all coming from the same source.”

“Whereas, on the other side,” Jansy adds, “you have many sources saying the same thing coming from their own independent research.”

The study’s authors identified over 1,500 influential actors on climate change policy by compiling everyone who testified during a hearing about climate change during a period of two congressional sessions, any organization that registered to lobby on the subject of climate change, and any political actor participating in the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The authors ranked all of the actors based on how frequently they appeared on the list to come up with the 100 most influential individuals and organizations working on climate change policy. They then conducted a survey of the top 100 asking about their sources of information.

The researchers graphed their answers using statistical models to identify the presence of echo chambers, which occur when two actors with same preexisting beliefs share information in the way that reinforces those beliefs, or when an individual gets the same information through multiple sources.

“If you want to get a balanced view of science, you go to many different people to get your sources of information,” says study coauthor Dana Fisher. “We ended up finding that, instead, the information was being transmitted through what we’re calling ‘echo chambers.’ We’d see specific actors getting information from multiple sources, but their actual original source of information is the same. And it’s all people who have the same opinion when you ask them a question about climate change.”

Within the scientific community, the debate over the reality of man-made climate change is almost entirely settled. A large-scale review of scientific studies on the subject of climate change that took a position on one side or the other found that 97 percent held that the planet is warming due to human activity.

“If you want to get a balanced view of science, you go to many different people to get your sources of information.”

Even so, in a vote held in January 2015, 49 United States senators came out against the non-binding measure holding that climate change was both real and man-made.

The study asserts that it’s possible for so many elected leaders to hold a view counter to the scientific consensus due to echo chambers constantly reinforcing the voices of the small number of scientists who argue against anthropogenic climate change.

This congressional split on climate change is also reflected in the American populace as a whole. Polling data released by the Carsey Institute last year found climate change to be the single most divisive issue in American politics. A whopping 83 percent of Democrats acknowledge that human beings are responsible for climate change, while only 36 percent of Republicans and 23 percent of Tea Party members do the same.

The study’s authors argue that the existence of echo chambers is largely a result of policymakers largely selecting experts based on advancing their specific political agendas rather than in an attempt to obtain the most relevant information, regardless of its source.

“Our findings suggest that scientific experts are called on by political actors, not just for the completeness of their knowledge, but for how well they fit into particular political narratives,” the coauthors write.

“Social structures that increase partisanship and extremity in these views do little else,” they add, “but hamper political and scientific progress.”

A version of this story originally appeared on the Daily Dot on May 26, 2015. 

Illustration via Max Fleishman