September 5, 2015, by Warren Pearce

The crucial role of culture in climate change

Winfield House, London. U.S. Embassy London photo.

On Wednesday, I attended the US Ambassador’s ‘digital dialogue’ event on climate change at Winfield House, where policy wonks, journalists, NGO representatives and academics discussed their current hopes and frustrations. Beyond the usual grumbles about ‘bogus arguments’ against climate action, it was pleasing that some attendees outside of the social sciences chose to highlight the key role of cultural factors in climate change.

Libertarian values

One interesting example cited was that of Debbie Dooley, an original organiser of the libertarian Tea Party group who has become a passionate advocate for domestic solar power. Dooley sees solar as fundamental to preserving some of the necessary conditions (“clean air and clean water”) for a functional free market. Her values are front and centre of her argument for solar power and against fossil fuels which contribute to air pollution. Scientific knowledge is implicit in her concerns, but they are not used as a primary lever for action. One can picture a (vigorous!) debate around the values upon which different types of climate policy might be based. However in the case of Dooley at least, it seems unlikely that such arguments will be reduced to disputes over scientific statistics.

My science is better than yours

Such business as usual bickering has been prominent in recent days, following the appearance of Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum on the Bill Maher Show. On the programme, Santorum claimed that “57% of scientists did not buy [the idea] that CO2 is the knob that’s turning the climate”. This statistic appears to come from a recent re-analysis by climate bloggers of an original survey of climate scientists by Verheggen et al.  The bloggers’ claim of considerable disagreement amongst the scientific community is radically different from that of the authors, one of whom (Verheggen) has reaffirmed his position that “scientists overwhelmingly agree that recent global warming is to a great extent human caused”.

Verheggen et al’s survey is the latest effort to quantify the level of scientific consensus regarding the role of human activities in climate change. Such research is typically justified by the presence of a ‘consensus gap’ between the views of scientists and the public (Verheggen et al., 2014, 8963; Cook et al., 2013, 1; Oreskes, 2004), the assumption being that accepting that human activities are changing the climate is a ‘gateway belief’ for support of climate policies. Consensus quantification seeks to overcome the perceived problem of climate critics picking apart the science (which is always provisional, subject to doubts etc) as a means of confusing the public regarding the true level of consensus, and thus arguing that we need more against climate policies.

Ironically, Santorum’s intervention shows that such social scientific research is just as vulnerable to reinterpretation and reframing as the physical science research it seeks to assess. It is telling that when asked about climate change, Santorum immediately heads for the solace of numbers as ‘facts’. Maher rebuffs him in typically colourful style, citing the famous 97% consensus figure. However, Santorum merely reasserts his 57% figure, leaving Maher to (implicitly) accept that such a trading of numbers is a fruitless way to talk about climate change and amounts to nothing more productive than “my number is better than yours!” (see 2m 38s on the video).

Back to values

Maher then changes tack towards a more values-based discussion around the Pope’s recent encyclical which included climate change (see paragraph 20 onwards). Maher treats it fairly shallowly, and is on uncertain ground bearing in mind his trenchant views on religion. Yet this shaky step towards talking about the values that underlie climate policy does yield a more promising result, with Santorum taking a somewhat more conciliatory approach, talking about opening up a discussion between people who disagree with each other. This is a marked change of tone from when the discussion was based around the level of scientific consensus. Whether or not Santorum’s 57% is correct (on the face of it, this is unlikely) is neither here nor there in this example. The point is that attempting to discuss values, and in particular the religious values which run deep in US politics, a space for more productive dialogue was opened up. (Even today, a similar brouhaha occurred over inaccuracies within Emma Thompson’s Newsnight appearance about climate refugees.

Values first, science second

Taken together the Santorum and Dooley examples point to something fundamental to the climate debate: we are at a stage where increasing weight of scientific research is unlikely to change anyone’s opinion about climate change. Even if it were, whether or not the public (including politicians) share the same level of consensus as scientists is not the primary concern. As Dan Sarewitz argued, increasing the supply and communication of scientific knowledge does not help us with climate politics at all. Rather, we should focus on discussing how the diverse values that exist within societies shape our responses to climate change.

Too often in the past, debates have focused in the first instance as to whether or not climate change exists, then what we should do about it. Focusing on values rather than science in the first instance, provides the space to talk more openly about both the science and the outcomes. Engaging Santorum on his values is likely to prove more fruitful than attempts to conflate politics with physics, an approach which will continue to put undue pressure on climate science as the locus of climate change debate, a function it is ill-equipped to fulfil. Putting science before culture and values is counterproductive to good policy outcomes. Thankfully, the evidence from Winfield House, and even the Bill Maher Show, shows that the importance of cultural factors is being increasingly recognised outside of the social sciences. I hope this trend continues.

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics