Few issues in the United States reflect as deeply polarized divisions as climate change. Most explanations for the intense political conflict tend to blame the conservative movement. These arguments are understandable given the longstanding efforts by many conservative groups and leaders to dispute the urgency of climate change, to attack and ridicule advocates for action on the issue, and to even outrageously assert that climate change is a "hoax."
Yet, as I review in a series of essays this week, for scientists and the expert community to successfully navigate this polarization requires a broader understanding of the factors that have seeded political dysfunction and the strategies available for restoring cooperation in support of effective policy actions.
Today, I examine the special attributes of climate change that make the issue so politically divisive and analyze how early definitions of the problem may have helped inadvertently set in motion the polarization that exists today.
I also take a look at the psychological roots of our disagreement on the issue and the many ways in which our contemporary media system feeds on and amplifies our diverging opinions.
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.
Climate Change and Our Hoped for Futures
Instead of a conventional environmental threat like smog or acid rain, scholars like Mike Hulme, professor of climate and culture at Kings College London, argue that climate change is more accurately defined as a “wicked problem.” Such problems are the product of multiple social, ecological, and technological systems, are difficult to define, have no clear solution, and are seemingly intractable, often plagued by chronic policy failures and intense disagreement.
Wicked problems require almost constant risk reduction, conflict management, and political negotiation that seldom bring an “end” or resolution. Like poverty or war, climate change is not something likely to be solved, eliminated or ended, but rather a condition that society will struggle to understand, make sense of, and do better or worse at in managing.
As a consequence of its wicked nature, "we won’t understand climate change through science and economics alone,” urges Hulme in his 2010 book Why We Disagree About Climate Change. “We need to understand the ways in which we talk about climate change, the variety of myths we construct…and through which we reveal to ourselves what climate change means to us.” [For more on Hulme's perspective, see video at end of essay.]
As a leading example of how different advocates use climate change to argue their visions for a hoped for future, consider writer and activist Bill McKibben, who in 1989 published The End of Nature, recognized as the first popular book about climate change.
As I detailed in a 2012 Harvard Shorenstein Center paper, McKibben warned that humans had become the “most powerful source for change on the planet,” a potentially catastrophic achievement that marked an end to our traditional understanding of nature.
The only possible path to survival, McKibben argued in The End of Nature and more recent works like Deep Economy and Eaarth, was through a fundamental reconsideration of our world views, aspirations and life goals and the creation of a new consciousness that would dramatically reorganize society, ending our addiction to fossil fuels, economic growth and consumerism.
In this pastoral future free of consumerism or material ambition, Americans would rarely travel, experiencing the world instead via the Internet, grow much of their own food, power their communities through localized solar and wind, and divert their wealth to developing countries.
Only under these transformational conditions, argued McKibben, would we be able to set a moral example for countries like China to change course, all in the hope that these countries will accept a “grand bargain” towards a cleaner energy path.
Other voices have offered a different outlook and set of prescriptions intended to address climate change. For example, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore echoes many clean energy advocates when he argues that nature's limits can be stretched if the right policies and reforms are adopted, enabling environmentally sustainable development to continue indefinitely.
Among the major policy actions endorsed by Gore and similarly-focused clean energy advocates is to increase the cost of carbon-based energy through “pricing mechanisms” like a carbon tax or cap and trade system so that solar, wind, and other innovative technologies become more competitive and industries more energy efficient.
In this, business leaders and industries that switch their focus from fossil fuels to renewable technologies are viewed as valuable partners, and action on climate change defined as potentially profitable.
Presented with these two dominant visions for what climate change means for the transformation of society and the economy, it is not surprising (though no less deeply troubling) that the fossil fuel industry and their allies among conservatives have opposed almost any effort to limit greenhouse emissions, often rejecting outright the conclusions of climate scientists who they argue are aligned with Gore, "Hollywood liberals," and the United Nations.
Our Ideological Message Machines and the Cultural Divide
In a series of widely discussed “cultural cognition” studies, Yale University’s Dan Kahan and colleagues have identified a set of world views and social processes that help explain why the competing views for society offered by McKibben, Gore and conservative leaders make achieving political consensus on climate change so difficult.
Kahan and colleagues employ an index of survey measures that classify members of the public by their respective orientations towards either hierarchical and individualist world views (which correspond generally with more traditionally right wing political views) or their opposing orientation towards a communitarian and egalitarian outlook (which correspond generally with more left wing political views).
Members of the public scoring high on hierarchical and individualist values tend to be skeptical of environmental threats like climate change since they intuitively sense that actions to reduce environmental risks will adversely impact commerce and industry, institutions that they deeply value and respect.
In contrast, for members of the public scoring high in terms of communitarian and egalitarian values, policy actions that restrict commerce and industry are viewed as benefiting the broader community and the most vulnerable in society. This segment of the public readily accept the risks posed by climate change since actions to restrict greenhouse gases from industry are consistent with their vision for what a better world would look like. [For more on Kahan's research, see video at end of essay.]
As I detailed with Dietram Scheufele in a 2012 article at The Breakthrough Journal, the differences in cultural world views and polarized perceptions identified by Kahan and other researchers are reinforced by way of dramatic changes in the media system over the past decade and by the heavy investment by conservatives and liberals in competing networks of donors, think tanks, advocacy groups, and strategically coordinated message machines.
In today’s era of the 24-hour political news cycle, commentators and bloggers on the political left and right rely on the latest insider strategy, negative attack, or embarrassing gaffe to appeal to ideologically motivated audiences, connecting almost every policy issue to the broader struggle for control of American politics between liberals and conservatives.
In this regard, the divisiveness and rancor that typifies online commentary about climate change is driven in part by what Tufts University scholars Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj characterize in a series of studies as the broader media “outrage industry.”
This discourse culture specializes in provoking emotional responses from audiences, trading in exaggerations, insults, name calling, and partial truths about opponents and reducing complex issues to “ad hominem attacks, overgeneralizations, mockery, and dire forecasts of impending doom," they write.
Moral outrage in the media feeds on and spreads by way of Americans’ face-to-face conversations and online social networks. In recent decades, as people have sorted themselves into like-minded residential areas, workplaces, and political districts, the similarity of Americans’ social, political, and geographic enclaves has increased appreciably.
As a result, on climate change, many Americans are unlikely to report personally knowing people who hold different views from their own. Instead, the “political other” is a caricature offered at blogs, on talk radio, or on cable news.
For many Hierarchical Individualists, those who support action on climate change are “eco-fascists” and for Communitarian Egalitarians those who express doubts are “denialists.”
In each case, the opposing side is viewed as incapable of either reason or compromise.
Editorial and business decisions at prestige news outlets have also unwittingly boosted polarization on climate change. The New York Times and Washington Post, most notably, have cut back on news coverage of climate change and other science issues, letting go of many of their most experienced reporters, allowing advocacy-oriented media outlets and commentators to fill the information gap.
As a consequence, careful reporting at these outlets on the technical details of science and policy has been replaced by morally framed, outrage-laden interpretations from bloggers and advocacy journalists different ideological outlets.
Online news and commentary are also highly socially contextualized, passed along and preselected by people who are likely to share world views and political preferences.
If an individual incidentally “bumps” into news about climate change by way of Twitter, Facebook, or Google +, the news item is likely to be the subject of meta-commentary that frames the political and moral relevance of the information.
Taking advantage of these self-reinforcing spirals, advocacy groups devote considerable resources to flooding social media with politically favorable comments and purposively selected stories.
Even when individuals, prompted by a focusing event like extreme weather or a major scientific report, do decide to seek out more information about climate change via Google and other search engines, further selectivity is likely to occur, explains University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Dominique Brossard.
In this case, liberals might choose to search for information on “climate change,” and encounter one set of differentially framed search results; whereas a conservative searching for information on “global warming” encounters an entirely different set of search results.
Not only does word choice shape the information returned through Google, but so does the past browsing and search history of the individual, adding an additional layer of selectivity and bias to the information encountered.
A Disappearing Middle Range of Expert Voices?
In the face of these deep psychological, cultural, and media barriers, it may seem to many scientists and other experts extremely difficult if not personally and professionally risky to reach out to the media or the public.
The broad "invisible middle" of experts on climate change, as Andrew Revkin of the New York Times has called them, may in fact be growing more reluctant to participate in the type of cross-cutting conversation we need about how to manage climate change risks and navigate a path to a cleaner, abundant energy future.
After all, in today's world of almost relentless media outrage and ideologically disciplining message machines, an expert discussing their views on climate change may come under attack from both the left and the right.
Employing a term from Cultural Cognition research, Ezra Klein in a recent profile of Dan Kahan to launch his new web site Vox.com perhaps summed up the dysfunctional state of our political culture best. "Washington [DC] has become a machine for making identity-protective cognition easier," he writes.
"Each party has its allied think tanks, its go-to experts, its favored magazines, its friendly blogs, its sympathetic pundits, its determined activists, its ideological moneymen...And so these institutions end up employing a lot of very smart, very sincere people whose formidable intelligence makes certain that they typically stay in line. To do anything else would upend their day-to-day lives."
Yet there are a range of strategies that experts and their organizations can systematically invest in if we are going to salvage our political culture and restore the type of constructive discourse and debate we need to effectively tackle climate change.
Several of those strategies I take up in the next essay in this series.
Other Essays in the "Pathways to Progress on Climate Change" Series:
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.
In this 2011 talk delivered in Sydney, Australia, Kings College London professor Mike Hulme discusses climate change as a wicked problem; and reflects on reactions to his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change. The lecture was recorded as part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Big Idea series.
In this lecture from the 2012 National Academies' conference on the "Science of Science Communication," Yale University professor Dan Kahan explains his theory of Cultural Cognition and discusses his co-authored study at Nature Climate Change showing that the most polarized Americans on climate change are among the most scientifically and numerically literate.