Climate Change’s Poisoned Culture

By February 10, 2015Blog

About the Author

This blog originally appeared on Geographical and U-M blog, The Conversation.

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By Jmcdaid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Climate change appears to have joined sex, religion, and politics as an issue that people try not to discuss in polite conversation. Indeed, according to a survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, two-thirds of Americans rarely if ever discuss global warming with family or friends. Those that choose to open up the topic will find that it sharply divides people along ideological lines. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 50% of Republicans believe that “global warming evidence is solid,” while the corresponding number for Democrats is 88% (62% of Independents and only 25% of Tea Party Republicans). How did this happen? When nearly 200 scientific agencies around the world (including those of every one of the G8 countries) and 97% of the 11,944 peer-reviewed journal articles between 1991 and 2011 endorse the position that climate change is happening, why is there such an emotional and vitriolic debate over this single scientific issue?

The answer is because the public debate over climate change is no longer about science. It is about values, culture, worldviews and ideology. As physical scientists explore the mechanics and implications of anthropogenic climate change, social scientists explore the cultural reasons why people support or reject their scientific conclusions. What we find is that scientists do not hold the definitive final word in the public debate on this issue. Instead, the public interprets and validates conclusions from the scientific community by filtering their statements through our own worldviews.

Through what is called “motivated reasoning,” we relate to climate change through our prior ideological preferences, personal experiences, and knowledge. We search for information and reach conclusions about highly complex and politically contested issues in a way that will lead us to find supportive evidence of our pre-existing beliefs. In that search, we tend to develop worldviews that are consistent with the values held by others within the referent groups with which we self-identify, what Yale University Law and Psychology Professor Dan Kahan calls “cultural cognition.”It is not necessarily that we reject scientific conclusions in this process, but that they are weighted and valued differently depending on how our friends, colleagues, trusted sources or respected leaders value and frame these issues. As such, positions on topical and controversial issues like climate change become part of our cultural identity.

And this last part is important; when belief or disbelief in climate change becomes connected to our cultural identity, providing contrary scientific evidence can actually make us more resolute in resisting conclusions that are at variance with our cultural beliefs. Research has found that increased education and self-reported understanding of climate science corresponds with greater concern among those who already believe in climate change but less concern among those who do not. In short, increased knowledge tends to strengthen our position on climate change, regardless of what that position is. This conclusion challenges the common assumption that more scientific information will help convince Americans of the need to deal with climate change.

So as you consider your next conversation over climate change, it is worth asking; What are you trying to get out of these discussions? Rather than presenting data, explaining the models, quoting scientific reports or calling forward the endless list of scientific agencies that confirm that climate change is real, you might choose to meet your counterpart where they are. To begin, recognize the emotionality of the issue. When analyzing highly complex or politically contested scientific concepts about which we have a limited understanding, our reasoning is suffused with emotion. Chris Mooney writes, “our positive and negative feelings about people, things and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds…We’re not driven only by emotions, of course – we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower.” New York University Social Psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, puts it more succinctly; “we may think we are acting as scientists when analyzing data and models, but very often we are acting more as lawyers, using our reasoning to a predetermined end, one that was emotionally biased by our ideological positions and cultural views.”

So, how you present climate change and who you invoke is as important as what you present. Invoke Fox News or NPR, Al Gore or Rush Limbaugh, and you will get a fundamentally different emotional response. Each represents different belief systems and worldviews, and thus different positions on climate change. Studies have found that increasing viewership of Fox News correlates with decreasing belief in climate change while increasing viewership of MSNBC yields the opposite. So, when speaking to a conservative, invoke a conservative; when speaking to an evangelical, invoke an evangelical. The much anticipated encyclical letter on climate change from the Pope will reach and convince far more climate contrarians than the next report from the United Nations IPCC.

Further, where you may be saying “climate change,” some may be hearing a socialist agenda, distrust of environmentalists, concerns over larger government, unwarranted constraints on the market, or threats to their notion of God. Others may hear completely different connotations: the natural outcome of a consumerist market system run rampant, belief that scientific knowledge should guide decision-making, a much needed call for regulation to curb market excesses, and even the potential for a breakdown of civilization if we fail to act. The reality is somewhere in between.

At the root of it, people are motivated by different concerns: economic competitiveness, national security, risk prevention, religious morality and you need to find that lever to trigger people to accept the science. And they do not like to be judged, blamed, condescended or made to feel foolish. And that, unfortunately, is how many of these conversations go. “Oh no, here comes that environmentalist! Will he get condescending and give me a science lecture, challenging my lack of knowledge while asserting his own? Or will he judge me and my lifestyle, critiquing my choice of car, house, vacation habits, or any one of the multitude of “unsustainable” activities that we all undertake? Or might he begin to pontificate on the politics of the issue, complaining of the partisan split on the issue and the corporate influence on our political system? These are all plausible and unpleasant scenarios that lead people to avoid this topic. If you can’t move beyond these scenarios and find a way to communicate climate change in a way that can actually convince, perhaps it would be best to talk about football instead.

About The Conversation

Developed by a team of sustainability leaders, The Conversation is a lively, online salon devoted to high-level conversation about sustainability issues. Contributors react to current events, elucidate their work and push the sustainability conversation forward. New blog entries are posted every two weeks. The Conversation is sponsored jointly by the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, the Graham Sustainability Institute, the Michigan Energy Institute and the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan.


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