Your politics and gender play a part in whether you are a climate change sceptic, writes Marc Wilson.

Some of my best friends are climate scientists. This is handy, because I'm not a climate scientist myself - I am just a nosy person, who can justify asking people what they think about their world by calling my nosiness "psychological science".

One of the things that I'm interested in is science (not just climate science), or at least what people think about it. For instance, I can tell you that the vast majority of New Zealand's intellectual elite believe that human beings came to be the way they are over a long period of time, and through a process of evolutionary adaptation. What's really interesting about our country is that, unlike the United States, the person on the street is pretty solidly in agreement with our scientific community on this one.

In New Zealand, at least, evolution is not a particularly controversial topic.

What about climate change then? First, it's reasonable to say that almost all climate scientists (and not just the ones I'm friends with) take the position that climate change is not only happening, but it is strongly influenced by human actions. Is this consensus reflected among the non-scientists that make up 99.99 per cent of the population?


While New Zealand may market itself as a 100% Pure environment, it appears that considerably fewer than 100 per cent of New Zealanders would agree with the scientific community. In fact, the best evidence we have suggests that between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of us endorse anthropogenic climate change - that climate change is real and we're a big contributor. Only Hamiltonians report more scepticism than those in the Auckland sprawl.

I'm fascinated by this, particularly because you can't watch the news or glance at the Herald app without seeing the effects of climate change - once-in-ever floods in Whanganui, damage to the Wellington waterfront caused by freakish swells, or unseasonal cold (and hot) spells country-wide and globally.

We all know that the scientists say climate change is happening, but a goodly chunk of us don't believe. And this tells me that whether or not you believe in climate change isn't just about education, or exposure.

The gap between lay and expert consensus is where my research lives - why do people believe what they do, if it's not just about the science? Let's start with what we know. Internationally, climate change scepticism has been characterised as a "rich, conservative, white man's" disease, but you will be pleased to hear that this isn't the case in New Zealand.

Or rather, while it's true that politically conservative men are most likely to poo-poo climate change, they're not necessarily rich, or white. In New Zealand, education and income are both unrelated to climate change belief (or scepticism). But ... one's political orientation explains about a quarter of the variation in their position on climate change, and women are three times more likely to be climate change believers than men.

Which is consistent with the other things that social scientists know about women - they're more likely to support social and human rights causes, not to mention animal rights.

They tend to be opposed to hunting animals, and more likely to be vegetarian or vegan, and not just for ethical reasons. Women are more likely to be meat-free because of the argument for plant-based diets that it takes less agricultural land area to grow the plants that can feed a person, than to feed the animal that will be eaten.

All of these 'causes' have in common that they're what have been called "hierarchy-attenuating" - they involve challenging the implicit (and sometimes explicit) idea that the world should be organised hierarchically, from top to bottom, with important things at the top, and less important things at the bottom. Relatively unimportant things like the environment, it may sometimes appear.


• Marc Wilson is Associate Dean of the School of Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington.