Book Review: How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, Andrew J. Hoffman, 2015

 As the author tells us, more science, by itself, won’t change people's’ minds about climate change. There is scientific consensus, but no social consensus. People filter information through their own worldviews; these cognitive filters reflect the cultural group people identify with. Thus people can be dismissive toward a conclusion that is threatening to their cultural values, but open-minded toward a conclusion that affirms those cultural values. Such values can include: freedom versus control; a great trust in market forces; the world as being orderly and stable; even the notion of God. We can’t solve environmental problems without addressing the beliefs and values that have led to them. We need to emphasize the linkage between values and environmentally benign behavior. 

When thinking about topics of which we have limited knowledge, we tend to fall back on emotionally based reasoning. Emotion arises more rapidly than conscious thought. But emotion is an integral part of our thinking and can be essential for making well-judged decisions. “Silent Spring” changed attitudes about balancing improvements in our standard of living against the degradation of our natural environment. One reason for author Rachel Carson’s success was her recognition and incorporation of emotionality into her book.

An important aspect of the emotion with which people react to the concept of climate change is trust. As the book states, people tend to distrust scientists, since they seem to elevate reason over faith, and the rational over the intuitive or spiritual; people also distrust the scientific process. For many people, the potential environmental disasters are just not possible in their conception of an orderly world. Before asking people to change their worldview, we must first gain their trust. People are more likely to accept a message if it comes from someone they trust as representing their values.

Trust can’t be gained by bludgeoning those we are trying to engage. Ways to reach people with a message of climate change reality include moving beyond language that is polarizing, judgmental, and condescending. People respond to what’s personal; those who report firsthand experience with extreme weather describe climate change as less uncertain. We need to appeal to ethical first principles such as wanting a good life for one’s children. In conversation with those who are doubtful about climate change, try to gain the person’s trust, address any distrust he may have, and appeal to his sense of a desired future.

As the author states, “The debate over climate change is not about greenhouse gases and climate models alone. It is about the competing world views and cultural beliefs of people who must accept the science, even when it challenges those beliefs” And he quotes Ronald Reagan: “If we’ve learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge: it’s common sense.”

The author, Andrew J. Hoffman, with a Ph.D. from MIT in Civil & Environmental Engineering, has worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. Now he is at the University of Michigan, as Director of the Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and Education Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute.