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Opinion

Don't ignore climate skeptics – talk to them differently

More scientific data won’t convince doubters of climate change. But reframing the debate as one about values could make a difference.

By Andrew Hoffman / June 24, 2011



Ann Arbor, Mich.

The American debate over climate change turns on two main themes. One is the science of the problem; the other is government measures to fix it. Many believe these themes cover the entire debate. They're wrong.

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Far more than science is at play on climate change. At its root is a debate over culture, values, ideology, and worldviews. One of the strongest predictors of an American's beliefs about global warming is political party affiliation. According to a 2009 Pew survey, 75 percent of Democrats believe there is solid evidence of global warming compared with only 35 percent of Republicans.

Climate change has been enmeshed in the culture wars where beliefs in science often align with beliefs on abortion, gun control, health care, evolution, or other issues that fall along the contemporary political divide. This was not the case in the 1990s and is not the case in Europe. This is a distinctly American phenomenon.

Based on some of my recent work on the cultural and ideological issues of the climate debate, I analyzed the ways that climate skeptics frame the issue both at a major conference and in US newspaper editorials from 2007 to 2009. What emerged was a set of cultural themes that reflect the deeper ideological undercurrents of this debate.

For skeptics, climate change is inextricably tied to a belief that climate science and policy are a covert way for liberal environmentalists and the government to diminish citizens' personal freedom.

A second prominent theme is a strong faith in the free market, an overriding fear that climate legislation will hinder economic progress, and a suspicion that green jobs and renewable energy are ploys to engineer the market.

The most intriguing theme is strong distrust of the scientific peer-review process and of scientists themselves: "Peer review" turns into "pal review," and establishment scientist-editors only publish work by those whose scientific research findings agree with their own. Scientists themselves are seen as intellectual elites, studying issues that are beyond the reach of the ordinary person's scrutiny. This should not come as a surprise, although it seems to have mystified many climate scientists.

Time to form the debate in a new way

It is time to see the form of the debate in a different way. While anthropogenic climate change is reaching a certain scientific consensus, it has not yet achieved a social consensus – one that emerges from accepted values and beliefs. Scientists do not have the definitive word in this cultural realm. The relevant constituencies go far beyond scientific experts and extend to broader members of society. And the way that these audiences understand and assess the science of climate change goes far beyond its technical merits.

Climate skeptics who ask critical questions for whatever reasons (as differentiated from disbelievers who engage in a close-minded campaign to debunk the science) should not be ignored or dismissed. In a representative democracy, diverse worldviews and constituencies must be heard and engaged.

To do otherwise risks burying climate change in a "logic schism," an intractable and stalemated debate in which the two sides are talking about different issues (such as life and choice in the abortion debate). They then seek only information that confirms their opinion and discounts those of others.

Instead, the discourse of the debate has to also be framed in ideological terms. Studies show that providing more contrary scientific evidence to people disinclined to believe the science could actually make them more resolute in resisting conclusions at variance with their cultural beliefs.

Move away from positions toward values

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