At the Paris climate conference in December 2015, 195 countries adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal with the long term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to attempt to limit the increase to 1.5°C. [Source].
However, a report released by the United Nations Environment Programme says that even if all the Paris pledges were fully implemented, global temperatures would rise between 2.9°C and 3.4°C by the end of this century. Even with 2°C of warming, climate change will wreak havoc on our world: extreme droughts, floods, storms, heat waves and impacts on food and water supplies leading to mass migration and further refugee crises. [Source]. Indeed, we are already seeing evidence of climate change playing out in natural disasters and the rise in global temperature.
In the face of overwhelming evidence that climate change is a reality with dire consequences, why then is there still so much controversy around it?
A paper for The Cultural Cognition Project, “The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change” by Dan Kahan et al undertook a large survey of US adults to dig deeper into the reasons for this controversy.
The current consensus is that the layperson doesn’t have a deep enough understanding of science to understand the evidence and cognitive heuristics to which we are all prone limit our ability to assess the information properly. Interestingly, the study found that lack of science education and ineffectual reasoning does not explain the climate change conflict. In fact, the study showed that overall, as people become more educated in science and proficient in reason, they are slightly less likely to see climate change as a serious threat. An increase in scientific literacy was seen to increase a person’s existing belief that climate change is not a serious threat.
The study suggests that the conflict can be understood through the “cultural cognition” theory, which posits that people form perceptions that conform to the values they share with others. The climate change controversy results from a basic conflict between groups with different cultural outlooks. As scientific and reasoning proficiency increases, people form beliefs even more correlated with their cultural group, rather than more in line with scientific consensus. Generally, people with a “hierarchical, individualistic” outlook tend to be more sceptical of climate change and people with an “egalitarian, communitarian” outlook tend to be more concerned about climate change. Both cultural groups are equally likely to hold mistaken beliefs about charged issues like nuclear power, climate change and gun control.
On an individual level, it is more likely for a person to be shunned or criticised if they disagree with their cultural group than for their opinions on climate change to affect any real change. In order to preserve social ties, people seek out and accept information that supports the values of their group. For example, the Athabasca oil sands project in Alberta, Canada is heavily criticised by much of the international community. However, the recent downturn in the oil and gas industry has left Alberta with an unemployment rate of 8.5% (as of December 2016). When the topic of climate change comes up, many Albertans respond to the fact that they, their families, friends and/or colleagues are out of work and uncertain about the future. And as a result, they are less likely to support initiatives like the recently implemented carbon tax. Under these circumstances, climate change measures are seen as another economic hardship to endure.
According to the study, tackling the climate change controversy cannot focus on improving the clarity of scientific evidence without taking into account people’s cultural outlooks. Strategies should instead be aimed at working with differing cultural values, for instance by presenting alternatives that emphasise the human capacity for solving economic problems under environmental constraints.
“Citizens are most likely to be driven off the path of convergence on the best available science, this research shows, when issues of environmental and technological risk become freighted with cultural meanings that motivate diverse groups to form opposing positions. This state is by no means inevitable with respect to any particular issue. What’s more, how such a state comes about does not defy empirical explanation, which can in turn be used to predict such controversies and to formulate strategies aimed at forestalling their occurrence or ameliorating their consequences should they occur.” [Source].
This type of controversy is of course not limited to climate change. Many contemporary issues are deeply entrenched in cultural polarisation and the political lens through which we evaluate these issues hinders rational, evidence-based decision making. For instance, a study from Stanford University found that when presenting welfare policies to groups of liberals and conservatives, liberal people endorsed conservative policies if they thought they had come from the Democratic Party and vice versa. [Source].
As we have seen, these effects are only exacerbated by increasing animosity from each side of the political divide. The good news is we can realistically address these issues by understanding how cultural cognition works and developing complementary communication strategies.