Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 1

Research on the Politics of Technical Decisions

In recent years, advocates arguing for action on climate change have invested in ever more aggressive confrontation of their longstanding opponents among conservatives and the fossil fuel industry. These activists argue that such strategies are the only way to achieve progress in the face of dire stakes and some have called on the expert community to join them in the fight.

Recently, Bill McKibben even went so far as to argue that scientists should “go on strike,” no longer talking about the science as reviewed and synthesized in the IPCC reports. “At this point the white lab coats would be better used drawing attention to sit-ins and protests than drawing yet another set of ignored conclusions,” he wrote.

Yet even though such efforts may be an essential feature of social change, for scientists and their organizations, other strategies are needed if some semblance of political cooperation is to be achieved.

In this regard, for experts to successfully navigate the terrain of the political debate over climate change requires a careful understanding of the factors that seed polarization; and the strategies available for restoring cooperation, for decreasing the perception of entrenched group differences, and for building support for a portfolio of policies and energy technologies.

As I review in a series of essays this week, research suggests that a first strategy for the expert community includes going beyond the polarized, oppositional parties involved and bringing to the conversation a greater diversity of trusted societal leaders who can frame the issue in a manner that resonates with the identity and cultural background of broader segments of the public.

A second strategy starts with experts and their institutions who in serving as “honest brokers” must be pro-active in expanding the range of technological options and policy choices considered by decision-makers and the public.

Finally, a third strategy involves substantive investment by expert institutions and universities in the civic capacity of society to discuss, debate, learn about, and participate in policy decisions via localized media and public forums.

This essay and others in the series are adapted from a forthcoming chapter that I contributed to the Routledge Handbook of the Public Communication of Science and Technology.

The Nature of Scientific and Technological Controversies

Nearly forty years ago, the late sociologist Dorothy Nelkin commissioned a range of case studies examining the nature of controversies over science and technology. In the decades since, research inspired by these original studies has identified a generalizable set of insights that inform our understanding of the debate over climate change.

According to Nelkin, debates that emerged during the 1970s such as those over nuclear energy, environmental pollution and genetic engineering were fundamentally controversies over political control: Who gets to decide the future of these technologies or the actions to address these problems? Which values, interpretations, and worldviews matter? Is science and technology being deployed in the public interest or on behalf of special interests?

In the 1980s, controversies over fetal tissue research, animal experimentation, and the teaching of evolution in schools featured a new emphasis on moral absolutes. For combatants in these debates, there could be no compromise. Notably, each case study reflected intensifying tensions in modern society and competing visions for the future, including “disagreement over the appropriate role of government, the struggle between individual autonomy and community goals,” wrote Nelkin.

Relative to these issues, traditional approaches to science communication that emphasized the translation and dissemination of expert knowledge were poorly equipped to reduce conflict or promote consensus. In fact, such efforts were more likely to backfire than be successful.

The reason, as Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz explained in an influential 1992 essay, was that in these controversies uncertainty and complexity were high, decisions were perceived as morally urgent, and as a result reaching agreement among a plurality of stakeholders depended on negotiating competing interests and values. In other words, even though science policy controversies featured different competing claims to scientific authority, such claims often only obscured underlying values-based differences.

As a consequence, in those cases where the expert community focused narrowly on the dissemination of scientific evidence, as Daniel Sarewitz concluded in a 2005 analysis of environmental debates, such a strategy tended to reinforce entrenched positions, since scientific evidence is often sufficiently tentative enough to indefinitely support the values-based arguments of competing sides.

Frustrated for decades by their inability to resolve political conflicts over science and technology, many scientists blamed public ignorance, irrationality, or superstition when a social group ignored their advice or disputed their expertise. Following the 1987 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, sociologist Bryan Wynne challenged these dominant assumptions on the part of the expert community.

In examining why English sheep farmers doubted government scientist warnings about local soil and livestock contamination from Chernobyl’s continent-wide fallout, Wynne proposed that their skepticism of scientific advice was strongly filtered by feelings of distrust and alienation rather than ignorance or irrationality, feelings that were forged by local history, communication mistakes by scientists, and among farmers, a perceived threat to their way of life.

Various scholars also tracked the strategic use of language, metaphors, images and cultural allusions as they appeared in news coverage of science policy debates. These researchers studied the process by which advocates and journalists selectively “framed” the social and political relevance of nuclear energy and biotechnology.

Were these technologies innovative breakthroughs destined to drive social progress and economic growth, a Frankenstein’s monster out of control, or an unstoppable train that had already left the station? Were solutions dependent on holding industry and elected officials accountable, on following the advice of experts, and/or on following majority opinion?

Scholars showed how these competing interpretive packages and social representations evolved across years, policy arenas, media outlets and countries, noting their influence on public opinion and policy formulation. They concluded that a common set of social meanings could be expected to define the trajectory of debates over issues like nuclear energy, biotechnology and climate change.

In combination with this research on the media and framing, social scientists in the early 2000s began to more closely examine the cognitive and social factors that shape individual attitudes, beliefs, and preferences. Among the general public, scientific knowledge was found to be only one factor among several influencing public attitudes; and was only weakly correlated to policy preferences.

Instead, studies showed that knowledge was filtered by way of an individual’s social and political identity. Under conditions when trusted political leaders disagreed on policy and strategically communicated their differences to the public, highly knowledgeable members of the public who identified with these leaders tended to be the most divided in their opinions.

If Dorothy Nelkin were alive today, it would be fascinating to read her thoughts on the intense debate over climate change.

Like in the past controversies analyzed by Nelkin and others, trusted political leaders and advocates have framed what is at stake in the climate debate in a manner that resonates strongly with the world views and outlook of differing social groups and segments of the public.

The resulting polarization in attitudes has been reinforced as differential meanings and divisive interpretations spread by way of online news, commentary, and social media.

What are the special attributes of climate change that make the issue so politically divisive?

How did early definitions of the problem and the advocacy of specific solutions help to inadvertantly set in motion the polarization that exists today?

Those are the questions I address in the next essay in this series.

Other Essays in the "Pathways to Progress on Climate Change" Series:

Part 1: Lessons from Research on the Politics of Technical Decisions

Part 2: Wicked Psychology and Ideological Message Machines

Part 3: Telling Stories about Human Security and Ingenuity

Part 4: Diversifying Policy Options and Promoting Public Debate


Adapted from Nisbet, M.C. (2014). Engaging in Science Policy Controversies: Insights from the U.S. Debate Over Climate Change. Handbook of the Public Communication of Science and Technology, 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.