Why the Climate Debate is a Culture War

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJul 6, 2011 9:05 PM


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If there is anyone out there who still believes that a lack of knowledge of climate science (e.g., the deficit model) prevents people from grasping the consequences of global warming, raise your hand. Now read this passage from the abstract of a recent study:

The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones.

The full paper, a product of Yale's Cultural Cognition Project, can be downloaded for free and is well worth reading. Based on their findings and an accumulation of social science research, the authors conclude:

It is thus plain that differences in our respondents' cultural values had a bigger effect on perception of climate-change risks than did differences in their degrees of either science literacy or numeracy.

Even Chris Mooney was forced to concede:

This is bad, bad news for anyone who thinks that better math and science education will help us solve our problems on climate change.

Now let's rewind to earlier this year and the spirited thread (over 200 comments) of this post, when Michael Tobis insisted that

the deficit model has to work. Facts emerge and cultures change in response. As the facts emerge more unambiguously, the cultural shift needs to "get in gear" and not sooner.

The Yale paper suggests that Tobis has it exactly backwards, that no cultural shift will emerge until differing worldviews are given greater consideration in the climate debate:

A strategy that focuses only on improving transmission of sound scientific information, it should be clear, is highly unlikely to achieve this objective. The principal reason people disagree about climate change science is not that it has been communicated to them in forms they cannot understand. Rather, it is that positions on climate change convey values"”communal concern versus individual self-reliance; prudent self-abnegation versus the heroic pursuit of reward; humility versus ingenuity; harmony with nature versus mastery over it"”that divide them along cultural lines. Merely amplifying or improving the clarity of information on climate change science won't generate public consensus if risk communicators fail to take heed of the cues that determine what climate change risk perceptions express about the cultural commitments of those who form them. In fact, such inattention can deepen polarization.

Al Gore, in his recent hard-edged Rolling Stone essay, wrote:

The climate crisis, in reality, is a struggle for the soul of America.

No, in reality, it seems more a struggle to reconcile climate science with competing values. But before we get to that point, I think some leading climate communicators, such as Gore, need to come to grips with the findings and suggestions laid out in the Yale Cultural Cognition paper.

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