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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.

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.

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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.

The most intriguing theme is strong distrust of the scientific peer-review process and of scientists themselves: "Peer review" turns into "pal review," and establishment scientist-editors only publish work by those whose scientific research findings agree with their own. Scientists themselves are seen as intellectual elites, studying issues that are beyond the reach of the ordinary person's scrutiny. This should not come as a surprise, although it seems to have mystified many climate scientists.

Time to form the debate in a new way

It is time to see the form of the debate in a different way. While anthropogenic climate change is reaching a certain scientific consensus, it has not yet achieved a social consensus – one that emerges from accepted values and beliefs. Scientists do not have the definitive word in this cultural realm. The relevant constituencies go far beyond scientific experts and extend to broader members of society. And the way that these audiences understand and assess the science of climate change goes far beyond its technical merits.

Climate skeptics who ask critical questions for whatever reasons (as differentiated from disbelievers who engage in a close-minded campaign to debunk the science) should not be ignored or dismissed. In a representative democracy, diverse worldviews and constituencies must be heard and engaged.

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To do otherwise risks burying climate change in a "logic schism," an intractable and stalemated debate in which the two sides are talking about different issues (such as life and choice in the abortion debate). They then seek only information that confirms their opinion and discounts those of others.

Instead, the discourse of the debate has to also be framed in ideological terms. Studies show that providing more contrary scientific evidence to people disinclined to believe the science could actually make them more resolute in resisting conclusions at variance with their cultural beliefs.

Move away from positions toward values

So, the focus of the discussion must move away from positions (climate change is or is not happening) and toward the underlying interests and values at play. It must engage at the deeper ideological levels where resistance is taking place, using new ways to frame the argument to bridge both sides.

For example, when US Energy Secretary Steven Chu refers to advances in renewable-energy technology in China as America's "Sputnik moment," he is framing climate change as a common threat to economic competitiveness. When Pope Benedict links the threat of climate change with threats to life and dignity, he is painting it as an issue of religious morality.

When the Military Advisory Board, a group of retired military officers, refers to climate change as a "threat multiplier," it is using a national-security frame.

And when the Pew Center refers to climate change as an issue of risk management, it is promoting climate insurance just as homeowners buy fire insurance. This is the way to engage the debate; not hammering skeptics with more data and expressing dismay that they don't get it.

"Climate brokers" can also help bridge the divide. 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. Given that a majority of Republicans do not believe there is solid evidence of global warming, the most effective broker would best come from the political right. At present, no one is readily playing this role.

Make academic science accessible

Finally, the debate must include a way to educate an American public that is relatively uninformed about the scientific process. For example, many people do not understand the nature of uncertainty, probabilities, and the standards of scientific proof.

Scientists will never be able to say with complete certainty that anthropogenic climate change is happening without a controlled experiment, one that requires another planet Earth. When it comes to understanding something as complex as the global climate, they will have to rely on the preponderance of evidence suggesting a prudent course.

Unfortunately, few academic scholars seem to possess the skills or inclination to play the role of educator to the general public. And given the level of vitriol, who can blame them? I and many of my colleagues are regular recipients of climate-skeptic hate mail and a few of us have even received death threats.

Despite such intimidation, we need another Carl Sagan, someone who can take complex scientific ideas and make them understandable to a lay audience. Unfortunately, whenever I mention this to my colleagues, the reply is derision: Sagan was a hack, a popularizer, and a lightweight. I see this as part of the arrogance of the academic community that has contributed to the mess we are in now.

As the prevailing logic goes, scientists develop data, models, and conclusions and expect acceptance because their interests should not be questioned. But science is never socially or politically inert, and scientists have a duty to both recognize its impact on society and communicate that impact to those who must live with the consequences.

Andrew Hoffman is the Holcim (US) professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and its School of Natural Resources & Environment.