Winning the climate culture war
My previous post covered a new study from Yale researcher Dan Kahan and colleagues showing that greater scientific literacy does not correlate with greater acceptance of the risks of climate change. In fact, polarization on climate change is greater among the scientifically literate.
What divides those who acknowledge climate risks from those who don’t (“skeptics”) is not education, intelligence, or numeracy, but values. Kahan uses the terms “egalitarian communitarian” and “hierarchical individualist,” but I think it’s easier to follow Chris Mooney and just call these personality types liberal and conservative. Possessing the personality traits and values of a liberal inclines one toward accepting the threat of climate change; possessing the personality traits and values of a conservative inclines one toward skepticism. This comports with other studies that find skepticism clustered among conservative white men.
What’s to be done about this? In another post, Kahan emphasizes:
When information is presented in a way that affirms rather than threatens their group identities, people will engage open-mindedly with evidence that challenges their existing beliefs on issues associated with their cultural groups.
How might this work in practice? Well, for instance, Kahan says that individualists are big fans of technology:
So one way to make individualists react more open-mindedly to climate change science is to make it clear to them that more technology — and not just restrictions on it — are among the potential responses to climate change risks. In one study, e.g., we found that individualists are more likely to credit information of the sort that appeared in the first IPCC report when they are told that greater use of nuclear power is one way to reduce reliance on green-house gas-emitting carbon fuel sources.
More recently, in a study we conducted on both US & UK samples, we found that making people aware of geoengineering as a possible solution to climate change reduced cultural polarization over the validity of scientific evidence on the consequences of climate change. The individuals whose values disposed them to dismiss a study showing that CO2 emissions dissipate much more slowly than previously thought became more willing to credit it when they had been given information about geoengineering & not just emission controls as a solution.
I bet if conservatives were offered a souped-up Dodge Charger with a hood-mounted missile-launcher that could obliterate climate change, they’d like that too. I call this the techno-testosterone family of climate-change solutions — big machines that smack down natural limits — and it doesn’t say anything flattering about the conservative psyche that this is what sways them on matters scientific.
But if it does sway them, isn’t that enough? Surely I won’t demand that they also agree with me on how to solve the problem! I’m always being told by Very Serious People that it’s churlish and “tribal” to act that way.
Notice the assumption, though: that getting people to “believe” climate science, to drop their avowed skepticism, is the end goal. Of course it’s not — the end goal is to reform our economies and institutions so that they’re not degrading the climate. If a class of people “believes” in climate change but thinks that nuclear power is a silver bullet (rather than one of the most expensive of a vast array of power options) or geoengineering is a safety valve (rather than a desperate Hail Mary), is that really an improvement? Is anything more likely to get done?
I obviously agree, as a tactical matter, that climate hawks should build bridges and alliances whenever possible. Not everyone has to agree about the Meaning of Life for the U.S. to make incremental progress. Yet it often seems that this short-term tactical orientation is pushed as an alternative to a larger, more ambitious strategy. We’re told not only to take advantage of tactical cease-fires, but to abandon the “culture war” — the war over values, the war over what climate change means — entirely. It’s just too divisive. Etc.
I think that’s terrible advice. If we think climate change is something deeper than a technical problem, something that will not be solved by big machines, something that requires fundamental rethinking and reform, we should strive to win that argument! From my perspective, widespread understanding of physical-science details is unlikely, among climate hawks or skeptics or the public generally, so it isn’t worth sacrificing one’s preferred values-based messaging to secure it. There is little such understanding on most scientific matters of policy significance; it is still possible to make policy in its absence.
The long-term strategic goal is not “belief” in scientific results. It isn’t even particular policies that reduce carbon pollution. It is a loosely networked but intense and activated movement devoted to a shared vision of a better society (a future that makes sense, you might call it). It doesn’t have to be a broad consensus. It can and will start small. But it should serve as a cultural attractor, with the goal of growing large enough to motivate meaningful change.
This doesn’t mean writing off everyone except doe-eyed liberals. A vision of a sustainable society need not be exclusive to egalitarian communitarians, though I suspect it will be more amenable to them than the current set-up. It is possible to attract support from people in the middle of the liberal-conservative personality spectrum, or the middle-right (I’m gonna go ahead and write off the far right), but the way to do that is not to pander to conservatives but to persuade the middle of the desirability of our vision — persuade them to join us. We need to paint a picture of a better quality of life, a more sustainable, prosperous, equitable society, so compelling that it resonates with people and draws them away from the status quo.
If fear pushes people toward conservatism and status quo bias, a sense of shared purpose and aspiration pushes the other way. It opens people up. If they are taken by the vision, they will come around on the science.