The Wilson Quarterly

Republicans and Democrats live on the same planet. But you could be forgiven for thinking they don’t.

Polls taken in 2010 found that nearly 70 percent of Democrats believed that global warming was occurring. Only 30 percent of Republicans agreed. The gap between the two groups was wider than it was in 2001.

The debate over whether greenhouse-gas emissions are raising global temperatures — and whether humans are to blame — has exited the realm of science and become an issue of “culture, worldviews, and ideology,” according to Andrew J. Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan. That’s not entirely a bad thing. But it means that those who want to forge a national consensus to address climate change must learn to think in different terms.

People are “boundedly rational,” Hoffman says; they can’t fully investigate the facts on all issues, so they use other means to arrive at their positions, often taking cues from groups they identify with, whether on the basis of ideology, occupation, or some other form of association or affinity. Bounded rationality is one of the forces that has overtaken the climate change debate. Research shows, for instance, that the more informed about climate science Republicans are, the less concerned they are about its effects. Deeper immersion in the issue seems to correlate with tighter group affiliations.

The debate often isn’t really about science at all. “When people hear about climate change, they may … hear an implicit criticism that their lifestyle is the cause of the issue or that they are morally deficient for not recognizing it.” They feel attacked. Given that, as Hoffman believes, dealing with climate change will require taking a hard look at everything from the kinds of lawn mowers suburbanites use to “new and perhaps unprecedented forms of global ethics and governance,” it’s no wonder some people dig in their heels.

What to do? Get over the notion that it’s all about the science, he urges. Don’t try to dismiss politics, culture, and emotion. They are going to be needed. No matter what their beliefs, few people are going to make the “the abiding commitments” to sacrifices that will be necessary to tackle climate change purely on the basis of rational argument.

Some of Hoffman’s other suggestions: First, recognize that science still matters. The argument can’t be left to bull-headed climate-change deniers and shrieking doomsayers. In 2011, only 39 percent of Americans believed that “most scientists think global warming is happening.” In reality, there’s a scientific consensus (though not unanimity) on the point. Scientists as a group still sway public opinion; the public needs to know about their collective judgment.

Remember that people are committed to more than one principle. Some conservatives may distrust scientists, for example, but care deeply about national security and competitiveness. They might be persuaded by arguments about the threat that oil dependency poses to the United States.

Even careful language choices can make a difference. Only 44 percent of Republicans in one recent study said they considered “global warming” to be real. When asked about “climate change,” however, 60 percent acknowledged its existence. The challenge needs to be reframed in a positive light: Scientists and others who would shape opinion should “stress American know-how and our capacity to innovate.” Climate “brokers” from doubters’ own communities can also make a difference. For example, in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI cited climate change as a threat to humanity.

Science rarely provides a smoking gun, and it won’t in this case, Hoffman observes. Yet its arguments can prevail. For years, major portions of the public doubted the scientific link between smoking and lung cancer. “Absolute certainty” is still lacking. Yet today, those doubts are history — and so is the argument over the issue. America’s war over climate change could go the same way.

THE SOURCE: “Climate Science as Culture War” by Andrew J. Hoffman. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2012.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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