The trouble is that, in a polarized era, “political elites have every incentive to politicize these things early on, and so people who are paying attention to politics pick up on the frame elected officials and the media are using,” said Jaime E. Settle, an associate professor of government and director of the Social Networks and Political Psychology Lab at the College of William & Mary.
Even catastrophic and highly visible events like the wildfires and the heat waves don’t necessarily move the needle, because “what happens is that people interpret these events from the framework they started with,” Settle said. So if a person starts out disbelieving the established science of human-driven climate change, they are likely to look at the recent evidence of climate change “and say, ‘Well, that’s not evidence’ or, ‘It is evidence but humans are not to blame for it.’”
Joanne Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale who studies political polarization and political violence, said today’s environment felt reminiscent of previous eras of extreme division, including the 1790s, the 1850s and the 1960s.
“Something those periods share is when things are that polarized, there’s a lack of trust in pretty much anything — a lack of trust in information, a lack of trust of each side in the other, a lack of trust in national institutions and their ability to handle things,” Freeman said. “Even though these things are happening right in front of us, so many people are distrustful of the information they get. You can’t get past that fundamental distrust to get to facts or even to get to things of extreme urgency.”
She added, “If you don’t trust lawmakers and you don’t trust the press and you don’t trust people in positions of authority outside of the little sphere in which they’re acting, how in the world can you pull people together to address something bigger?”