Awakening a week or so ago to the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, and to several days of heavy rain, flooding, property damage and a feeling of powerlessness in my small suburban community, my thoughts turned to the debate over climate change in our country. In a year when the number of tornadoes registered up to the end of June – approximately 1,600 – is already at a record level, 48 percent of Americans believe that the threat of climate change is exaggerated. At a time when eight of the top 10 worst disasters of 2010 (in terms of victims affected) were due to weather-related factors and the scientific consensus on man-made global warming is at 97% and growing, Americans are split on whether climate change is the result of human activities or non-human natural causes. U.S. public opinion on climate change has become increasingly polarized, as partisan think tanks, narrowcast media, chat rooms, divisive politicians and frustrated scientists have framed the discussion to recast an originally scientific topic into a political wedge issue.
Facts and education no longer seem to matter. Early environmental researchers found that level of education was the most consistent predictor of citizen concern over climate change. However, a study published in 2010 found something startling: concern about climate change increased with level of education among Democrats, but decreased with education among Republicans. That’s right: The higher the education level of Democrats, the more they believe in global warming, and the higher the education level of Republicans, the less they believe in it. This tells us that data, research and problem-solving are taking a back seat to ideology, sentiment and politics. In other words, this divide has less to do with science and more to do with emotions and values. There is a great sense of disdain and suspicion right now for the liberal scientific elite in a significant portion of the U.S. population, and I’m afraid the feeling is often mutual.
What can be done? There are a few options. One is to change the discourse, and identify green, pro-business initiatives that are championed in their own right – and remove climate change from the conversation. During the 1970s energy crisis, the Danes seized the opportunity to both lessen their dependence on oil and become one of the top innovators and providers of wind turbine technology in the world. Today they generate 20 percent of their own energy through wind power, and produce almost half of the world’s wind turbines. They didn’t engage in a debate over climate in the ‘70s; they simply saw a problem and an opportunity. Today, 86 percent of global businesses say they see climate risk as a business opportunity, and 83 percent see climate change as imposing risk on their products or services. A 2011 survey of CEOs by Price Waterhouse Coopers reports that 72 percent say they would support growth policies that are “financially, socially and environmentally sustainable,” and half feel optimistic that a shared agenda between the public and private sector will work better than in the past. CEOs want policies that balance policy objectives against concerns about overregulation. This strategy recognizes both the crisis of global warming and the current polarized state of the country and of the debate on climate change, which it may be best to circumvent for the time being while we focus our energies on generating and supporting pro-business (and green) solutions.
Another tactic is to try to begin to introduce more nuance into the conversation. In a study I and colleagues conducted on moral conflicts (over such issues as abortion, affirmative action, climate change and mandatory penalties for pedophiles), we found that when participants were given both pro and con information on an issue, and then engaged in a discussion with someone who held an opinion opposite to their own, they typically ended up stuck in their original position, angry and fed up. However, when we presented a different group of participants with the same information, but presented it in terms of multiple aspects and perspectives on the issue, they were much more open and able to learn during the conversation, felt more mixed emotions (both good and bad), and were able to reach a more sophisticated shared understanding of the issue. This is an effect of framing the information in less simplistic (pro-con) and more nuanced or complex ways.
These strategies should be seen as complimentary. The shorter-term focus should be on generating solutions–a few quick wins that aim for answers above the fray of the debate, while the scientific community begins a longer-term program of self-reflection and information dissemination (and attitude change) that frames scientific findings in an accessible, balanced, nuanced manner. In fact, it would help immensely if such information programs could appeal to and ultimately be endorsed by all sides of the debate. This is not easy, but it is not impossible.