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Can Social Scientists Ease the Nation's Rift over Climate Change?

Can social science explain why people flout reams of scientific conclusions about global warming?



Photo by theqspeaks, courtesy Flickr

Stop being so skeptical of climate skeptics, says one researcher who believes there's been a failure to understand the mounting cultural doubt around atmospheric warming.

The national discussion on climate change is brimming with economic models, scientific findings and wonky plans to fix it. But something is missing: academic explanations of why people flout reams of scientific conclusions, bristle at the notion of cutting carbon and regard climate change as a sneaky liberal plot.

"The social sciences are glaringly missing," says Andrew Hoffman, an expert on the sociological aspects of environmental policies at the University of Michigan, for which he's researching climate denial. "That leaves out critical questions about the cultural dimensions of both defining the problem and finding solutions."

He provides unvarnished reasons for that. One concerns his colleagues' dismissal of the conservative movement. They deny the deniers, he seems to say, by tending to "ignore the far right." More broadly, social scientists -- like sociologists, psychologists and communication researchers -- are generally disengaged from public policy debates.

"Both of those are problematic," Hoffman says. "Within academia, the currency that matters is in A-level journals. And therefore, the chief thread has to be theoretical. This is an empirical phenomenon."

That means observation. His research partner put that emphasis on collecting evidence to work by attending a conservative conference on climate change last May. She came away with themes that will sketch an outline of the skeptical movement for future research: Adherents tend to be middle-aged, white males who resent government, are suspicious of scientists and their peer-reviewed protocols, and believe global warming is made up to hit them in the wallet.

They find 'palpable anger'
"Palpable anger among speakers and participants" is one of the cataloged observations.

"Frequently heard terms" is another, describing climate advocates as warmists, alarmists, lefties, Obama-ites and communists. The research also notes that attendees referred to scientists who don't believe in climate change as "heroes."

One conservative at the conference, Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, was among those noticed by the researcher, who attended the meeting with a "skeptic insider." Horner stood out to the academic because of this quote: "The environmental agenda seeks to use the state to create scarcity as a means to exert their will, and the state's authority, over your lives."

Horner is not impressed by the research topic. He says it's one more attempt to justify climate change -- and the policies that go along with it.

"From this confusion they pretend to play Jane Goodall peering in on this strange culture standing in their way," he wrote in an e-mail. "Sorry. I'm too busy to give something like that a whole lot of thought right now."

All of this paints a complex picture for the researchers, who aim to ascertain whether the cultural barriers that separate conservatives and climate change can be bridged, or whether the ideological impulses have already become as strong as those surrounding abortion.

"Some may argue that the climate skeptic movement is small and thus irrelevant to the debate on what to do about climate change, but as social scientists, we cannot endorse such flippant dismissal," says a paper by the researchers that will be published in the journal Strategic Organization next summer.

Similarities to abortion politics
"If, as we suspect, skeptics invoke climate frames that resemble abortion politics, this has serious policy implications. As long as members of the skeptic movement are included in the policy debate and sway the opinions of some lawmakers, their discourse is critically relevant."

This comes amid a conservative rise in the House and Senate following midterm elections that often rewarded candidates who dismissed climate science. Days after that outcome, up to 45 climate scientists are now being deployed through media "rapid response teams" to promote their findings that support the occurrence of global warming.

The plan is not a reaction to the elections, says one organizer, but rather an effort to reboot the debate around scientific facts. Still, it might be seen as attempt to convince skeptics they're wrong, rather than understand the cultural reasons driving their beliefs.

"When you talk about dealing with skepticism outside the scientific community, much of that skepticism isn't founded on good science," said John Abraham, who researches thermal fluid processes at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and is participating in the response teams. "Some skepticism is so divorced from the science that it's very difficult to have a conversation and find compromise."

Hoffman cautions against the long-held philosophy of scientists to state the facts -- and expect leery audiences to shed their doubts. His paper says skeptics view climate science as a "covert way" for liberals and government to manipulate the financial markets and "diminish citizens' personal freedom."

"Simplistic notions," he said in an interview, "that we merely have to present the science and we're done -- that ignores some of the deeper cultural elements at play such as freedom, privacy, proper role of government, our place within the environment, the balance between development and environmental protection."

U.S. Chamber 'ripe' for research on skeptics
That's refreshing to Roger Pielke Jr., a controversial voice in the climate debate who has been accused of flirting with skeptics. He has frequently challenged the findings of climate scientists, but believes global warming is happening.

"It's been obvious to me for a long time that the denigration of so-called skeptics or deniers results in a self-fulfilling prophesy," said Pielke, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "If you tell people they're stupid and they're ignorant [and] they're anti-science, you probably shouldn't expect them to be supportive of the actions you're trying to compel them to take."

It's unclear -- even to the researchers -- whether their study will reveal points of agreement between climate believers and disbelievers. But they will focus on a few things to understand the potent beliefs around skepticism.

One will be whether messages by prominent skeptics resonate with a section of the public that might be inclined to be "climate skeptical." Another is how large corporate structures that oppose policies to address climate change might affect the attitudes of their business partners, and vice versa.

"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, is a ripe domain for research on climate skepticism," the paper says.

The topic, however, promises to provide some thorny challenges. The researchers, after all, are working to find areas of compromise that could be used to fix climate change -- and skeptics don't believe in climate change. They are also mistrustful of scientists and academic elitists -- characteristics they might apply to the researchers.

All of that is made more difficult by the nuances of climatic impacts on things like sea level rise, warming temperatures and the opening of the Northwest Passage. Those events and others can be dismissed as natural phenomena by someone inclined to disbelieve in climate change.

"This is a tough one to find a smoking gun on," said Hoffman.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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