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Don't ignore climate skeptics – talk to them differently

More scientific data won’t convince doubters of climate change. But reframing the debate as one about values could make a difference.

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The American debate over climate change turns on two main themes. One is the science of the problem; the other is government measures to fix it. Many believe these themes cover the entire debate. They're wrong.

Far more than science is at play on climate change. At its root is a debate over culture, values, ideology, and worldviews. One of the strongest predictors of an American's beliefs about global warming is political party affiliation. According to a 2009 Pew survey, 75 percent of Democrats believe there is solid evidence of global warming compared with only 35 percent of Republicans.

Climate change has been enmeshed in the culture wars where beliefs in science often align with beliefs on abortion, gun control, health care, evolution, or other issues that fall along the contemporary political divide. This was not the case in the 1990s and is not the case in Europe. This is a distinctly American phenomenon.

Based on some of my recent work on the cultural and ideological issues of the climate debate, I analyzed the ways that climate skeptics frame the issue both at a major conference and in US newspaper editorials from 2007 to 2009. What emerged was a set of cultural themes that reflect the deeper ideological undercurrents of this debate.

For skeptics, climate change is inextricably tied to a belief that climate science and policy are a covert way for liberal environmentalists and the government to diminish citizens' personal freedom.

A second prominent theme is a strong faith in the free market, an overriding fear that climate legislation will hinder economic progress, and a suspicion that green jobs and renewable energy are ploys to engineer the market.

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