Lessons from “Climate Science as Culture War”

Andrew J. Hoffman of the University of Michigan has a piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled “Climate Science as Culture War” that discusses the difference between scientific consensus on global climate change (there is one, internationally) and social consensus on global climate change (there isn’t one, in the US, and the sides seems to be polarizing.)  As data accumulated and “global warming” became “climate change” (and there’s good discussion of different constituencies react to this sort of terminology) the issue became less scientific and more entwined with entrenched values and value systems.

You’ve doubtless heard this argument in many contexts: once people have made up their mind on a divisive issue they seek out news sources that confirm their position and any new facts are interpreted in ways that reinforce, rather than challenge, the established belief.  With this in mind, Hoffman says the task of changing the public’s perception of “uncertainty” falls less on climate modelers to produce more compelling data and more on social scientists to communicate the scientific consensus effectively.  He asks:

If the public debate over climate change is no longer about greenhouse gases and climate models, but about values, worldviews, and ideology, what form will this clash of ideologies take? I see three possible forms.

The Optimistic Form is where people do not have to change their values at all. In other words, the easiest way to eliminate the common problems of climate change is to develop technological solutions that do not require major alterations to our values, worldviews, or behavior: carbon-free renewable energy, carbon capture and sequestration technologies, geo-engineering, and others. Some see this as an unrealistic future. Others see it as the only way forward, because people become attached to their level of prosperity, feel entitled to keep it, and will not accept restraints or support government efforts to impose restraints. Government-led investment in alternative energy sources, therefore, becomes more acceptable than the enactment of regulations and taxes to reduce fossil fuel use.

The Pessimistic Form is where people fight to protect their values. This most dire outcome results in a logic schism, where opposing sides debate different issues, seek only information that supports their position and disconfirms the others’, and even go so far as to demonize the other. University of Colorado, Boulder, environmental scientist Roger Pielke in The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics describes the extreme of such schisms as “abortion politics,” where the two sides are debating completely different issues and “no amount of scientific information … can reconcile the different values.” Consider, for example, the recent decision by the Heartland Institute to post a billboard in Chicago comparing those who believe in climate change with the Unabomber. In reply, climate activist groups posted billboards attacking Heartland and its financial supporters. This attack-counterattack strategy is symptomatic of a broken public discourse over climate change.

The Consensus-Based Form involves a reasoned societal debate, focused on the full scope of technical and social dimensions of the problem and the feasibility and desirability of multiple solutions. It is this form to which scientists have the most to offer, playing the role of what Pielke calls the “honest broker”—a person who can “integrate scientific knowledge with stakeholder concerns to explore alternative possible courses of action.” Here, resolution is found through a focus on its underlying elements, moving away from positions (for example, climate change is or is not happening), and toward the underlying interests and values at play. How do we get there? Research in negotiation and dispute resolution can offer techniques for moving forward.

Hoffman ultimately finds hope in the example of changing public attitudes that drove legislative action on cigarette smoking (much as the Climate Reality Project has in this video).  The comparison is apt, given the medical community’s unease with assigning clear causation, which mirrors climate scientists’ careful statements about the relationship between individual weather events and climate change, writ large.

There are good strategies here for reaching the folks who remain undecided (or are uncommitted to their decision) about climate change here, too. Read the whole article at SSIR’s website.