Climate change’s poisoned culture

  • Written by  Andrew J. Hoffman
  • Published in Opinions
Marchers take part in the Forward on Climate rally on February 17, 2013 in Washington DC, USA Marchers take part in the Forward on Climate rally on February 17, 2013 in Washington DC, USA Rena Schild
06 Feb
Climate change appears to have joined sex, religion, and politics as an issue that people try not to discuss in polite conversation

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 only 46% of Republicans believe that 'there is solid evidence the earth is warming', while the corresponding number for Democrats is 84%. How did this happen? When nearly 200 scientific agencies around the world (including those of every one of the G8 countries) and 97 per cent 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.

The public debate over climate change is no longer about science. It is about values, culture, worldviews and ideology

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 people 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.’

When speaking to a conservative, invoke a conservative; when speaking to an evangelical, invoke an evangelical

So, how you present climate change and who you invoke is as important as what you present. In America, invoking either Fox News or Al Gore will get a fundamentally different emotional response. Each represents different belief systems and worldviews, and thus different positions on climate change. 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.

Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor and Director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. He is the author of How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. This article is posted in conjunction with the University of Michigan.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.


Subscribe Today


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...


NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in OPINIONS...


It’s time to tackle the hidden superbug menace in India’s…


Earlier this month, an international sustainability conference brought together 400…


On the Southern edge of the remote Kongsfjorden (King’s Fjord)…


Exploring outdoors and in different places is important throughout our…


Something has gone badly wrong with our planet’s oceans. If…


Taking a wider look at Brexit from a geography standpoint


The blockade of imports into Qatar by its Gulf neighbours…


Is it time for a new and radical approach to alleviating…


Plastic-free aisles in our local supermarkets may just be key…


As reports of tourists being fed dog meat in Bali…


The idea of rewilding boar into the UK’s landscapes is…


2017 is the Chinese year of the chicken. This year, the…


Despite the many claims of authenticity, modern filmmaking is still…


With medical (and especially dental) tourism on the rise, Vitali…


More drugs than you might think are derived from, or…


The growth of cities is one of the defining challenges…


On a long-awaited return to Ukraine, Vitali Vitaliev finds a…


The world is changing, but one thing stays the same…


We live in an age where awe and wonder at the…


$150million. That is the estimated black market value of the…