The majority of scientists name climate change as the reason for the world's melting ice caps, rising sea levels and ever-climbing temperatures.
But one UNC doctorate student thinks climate change might also be behind the rise of right-wing nationalism.
On Sept. 25, Ph.D candidate in psychologyJoshua Conrad Jackson co-authored an article published on The Conversation, a non-profit publisher of commentary and analysis. The article is entitled "Could climate change fuel the rise of right-wing nationalism?" and discusses how climate change has increased cultural tightness within societies.
Cultural tightness is a term that describes a society's culture by how heavily a society enforces rules and norms and how it treats individuals who deviate from these expectations.
The article is based on recently-published research by Jackson and a team of researchers from around the country, which focuses on the ecological and cultural factors that contribute to cultural tightness.
Jackson said he and and his team ultimately found that as societies feel more threatened, their culture grows more strict and rigid. In the context of climate change, as people feel increasingly threatened about what could happen to the planet, more turn to politicians who stand against addressing the problem.
“What we were getting in our Conversation paper was — we were taking a specific threat, climate change, which is increasing in its everyday impact on people, and we were arguing that even though right wing politicians are usually the last people to endorse climate change or agree with it or enact policies to fight it, climate change actually might be leading to the rise in right-wing politicians,” Jackson said.
The article explains that if cultural tightness is taken too far, the results can be detrimental to society.
“If climate anomalies such as hurricanes and forest fires have a ‘tightening’ effect on cultures – and these catastrophes are happening more frequently – it might be driving more people toward politicians who espouse xenophobic, homophobic or racist rhetoric,” the article says.
However, increased cultural tightness may be necessary in certain cases. The article points to multiple societies that have benefited from implementing tight cultures in the face of environmental issues.
“Evolutionary analyses suggest that cultural tightness can be functional – even necessary – in the face of climate disaster,” the article says. “It can make people more cooperative and more likely to follow protocols, like rationing, during a drought.”
Michele Gelfand, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and a leading researcher on cultural tightness, said it's important to understand the psychological effects that cultural tightness may have on individuals.
“What the article is trying to say is that when people feel threatened, it actually is a certain psychology,” Gelfand said. “And whether that's real or imagined, it’s trying to describe that pattern versus saying that they’re good or bad. It’s trying to say that we have to be mindful that this can happen.”
Graham Gellin, a senior psychology major at UNC, said he thinks that being aware of the psychology of cultural tightness is more important now more than ever when it comes to deciding who to vote for.
“Awareness of something reduces the bias in it," Gellin said. "Even in not actively trying to stop it, just making people aware gives people a little more depth into their decision making."
Jackson said he believes that this increased cultural tightness within the United States is an issue that the country will have to face for the foreseeable future and will have major implications for the 2020 election.
He said it is important for the media to accurately depict the dangers of climate change during the upcoming election so that the nation can react appropriately.
“I think that what we need is more rigorous and honest media reporting on both sides of the political aisle," Jackson said. "And we need new clarity on what the best ways for fighting climate change are (and) what regulations could actually be healthy in the context of climate change."
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