Reframing Climate Change: It’s as Much Cultural as Scientific

ANN ARBOR, Mich.— While debate on climate change often strikes a caustic tone, the real impediment to meaningful dialogue is that the two sides often talk past each other in what amounts to a “logic schism,” says a University of Michigan researcher.

“In a logic schism, a contest emerges in which opposing sides are debating different issues, seeking only information that supports their position and disconfirms their opponents’ arguments,” said Andy Hoffman, the Holcim (U.S.) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at U-M’s Ross School of Business and School of Natural Resources and Environment. “Each side views the other with suspicion, even demonizing the other, leading to a strong resistance to any form of engagement, much less negotiation and concession.”

In a new study in this month’s issue of the journal Organization & Environment, Hoffman provides a descriptive analysis of the cultural and social landscape of the climate change debate in the United States, examining the presence of ideological and cultural influences on both the definition of the problem and consideration of solutions.

“The goal is to uncover whether competing logics within the broader climate debate represent a logic schism and, if so, whether that schism has reached such a point that it cannot be resolved,” said Hoffman, associate director of U-M’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.

Hoffman treats the climate change debate as a series of competing movements engaging in “framing battles” over the interpretation of the problem and the necessity and nature of solutions. These frames include diagnostic (defining problems and assigning blame), prognostic (focusing on solutions) and motivational (explaining the need to act) collective action.

These movements, he says, possess competing institutional logics regarding climate change—what Hoffman calls the “climate change convinced” and “climate change skeptical” logics. He is careful to distinguish between the extreme positions of climate change deniers and believers, who are fairly closed to debate and engagement, with the more central positions of the convinced and skeptical climate change populations.

In his study, Hoffman analyzed about 800 U.S. newspaper editorials on climate change from September 2007 to September 2009, and used qualitative data gathered at the Fourth International Conference on Climate Change in May 2010—the largest annual climate change denier conference in the world.

With regard to newspaper editorials, he found that 73 percent were written by those convinced that climate change exists. Nearly half of these “convinced” articles were written by journalists and most were presented as op-eds. Most “skeptical” articles were submitted by citizens as letters to the editor.

Nearly 90 percent of skeptical articles referenced science as an issue, suggesting that the definition of climate change is the crux of the debate. In other words, for skeptics, there is no problem or any uncertainty that a problem exists, Hoffman says.

Further, about 60 percent of the skeptical articles referenced political ideology using a diagnostic frame (calling into question the problem of climate change), suggesting that the science of climate change is politically motivated, he says.

“Similar to the terminology of the climate denier movement, nearly 25 percent of all skeptical articles refer to climate change proponents as alarmists,” he said. “More specifically, the dominant political target of these arguments is Al Gore, who is blamed by skeptical authors for fabricating the problem of climate change for ideological and personal gain.”

In contrast, climate change convinced articles invoked prognostic frames (finding solutions) in referencing political ideology, placing emphasis on what type of federal climate legislation should be passed.

“Even when convinced authors do not like the form that climate legislation or climate action may take politically, they are generally more supportive of doing something about it through legislation or regulation,” Hoffman said.

Convinced articles also tended to focus on the physical, social and health risks of climate change, as well as the urgency to act. For the convinced, the concern seems to be both convincing readers that climate change is a risk (diagnostic) and something we must address with action now (prognostic).

“The coding of newspaper articles show a division between the skeptical and convinced logics, with the former devoting a great deal of attention to whether climate change is actually happening as a man-made phenomena and the latter accepting the nature of the problem and attending to solutions,” Hoffman said. “This result is suggests that they are engaging in different debates over climate.”

Hoffman says that the debate about climate change is as much cultural as it is scientific, and that science does not have the definitive final word on whether society accepts climate change as a problem worth addressing.

In order to understand the landscape of the debate more completely, Hoffman says that greater attention must be paid to those who oppose or are indifferent to climate change action.

“Social scientists, by neglecting the skeptical logic, are neglecting a critical component of the social debate that is taking place,” he said. “In order to fully understand the climate debate, constituents must attend to the deeper cultural logics that are employed by opposing sides of the issue.”

In the end, individuals with credibility on both sides of the debate are necessary to act as “climate brokers” to open communication channels and to bridge the gap between those convinced that climate change exists and those who are skeptical, Hoffman says.

“People are more likely to feel open to consider evidence when it is accepted or, ideally, presented by a knowledgeable member of their cultural community,” he said. “Given that 35 percent of Republicans believe there is solid evidence of global warming compared to 75 percent of Democrats, the most effective broker would best come from the political right. At present, no one is playing this role.”

*Source: University of Michigan

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