Rift Over Climate Change Is Social, Not Scientific According to a 2009 Pew survey, 35% of Republicans polled see solid evidence of global warming, compared with 75% of Democrats. Little debate persists in the majority of the scientific community on the subject. But like many topics, partisanship has seized the debate.
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Rift Over Climate Change Is Social, Not Scientific

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Rift Over Climate Change Is Social, Not Scientific

Rift Over Climate Change Is Social, Not Scientific

Rift Over Climate Change Is Social, Not Scientific

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131544584/131544566" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

According to a 2009 Pew survey, 35% of Republicans polled see solid evidence of global warming, compared with 75% of Democrats. Little debate persists in the majority of the scientific community on the subject. But like many topics, partisanship has seized the debate.


Andrew Hoffman, professor, University of Michigan


Little debate persists in the scientific community on climate change, yet a Pew survey last month showed a major ideological rift. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats say there's solid evidence of global warming. Thirty-eight percent of Republicans agreed. When an issue becomes that polarized, discussion often turns into argument, and many decide to steer clear of the topic. Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan, believes his fellow social scientists have ignored this cultural divide over climate change and could contribute a lot more to the debate.

We want to know if you bother talking about climate change with friends and families who disagree, have you found productive ways to have those discussions? 800-989-82-55. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can always join the conversation on our website as well. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Andrew Hoffman is a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan and joins us on the phone from Montreal today. Nice to have you with us.

Professor ANDREW HOFFMAN (Sustainable Enterprise, University of Michigan): Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And if the public debate over climate change isn't really about the scientists - about the science, what is it about?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, we can say it's not about the science, but it's also a cultural issue, that the difference you described between Democrats and Republicans is a really interesting one, that there's something deeper at play here. And you can just focus on parts per million, but there's an underlying thread of issues about personal freedom, access to science, the role of big government. There's a lot of cultural underpinnings to this debate. And any kind of proposed policy changes are not - it's not politically inert. It does invoke cultural frames that are part of the debate.

CONAN: And the way you described those cultural frames, they are more or less mutually exclusive.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, you know, there are some that are places where people can talk about a common issue. But the one danger is a logic schism, or what Roger Pielke describes as abortion politics, where the two sides are talking about two completely separate issues and only look for information that confirms their opinion and disconfirms the other. And the danger is whether climate change will reach that level of schism.

CONAN: And it is beginning to approach that, at least according to some of your research.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, we're still working through the data and trying to answer that question. But there is - there are some sharp differences in terms of the logics, the frames and the culture, between the climate-skeptical, what we're describing, and also the climate-convinced.

CONAN: And the - part of the problem seems to be the attitude of some of those who argue strongly for the case for global warming. And they have the science on their side, it has to be admitted, but their attitude towards those who are skeptics suggesting that this conversation is not very productive if you begin with the attitude that your opponents are stupid.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Mm-hmm. I think that if you draw a bell curve of the debate, it's the tails that are dominating our conversation. And that's true with many debates, whether it's climate change or abortion, gun control or health care, and that rational dialogue or a thoughtful dialogue occurs in the middle. And somehow we have to get it out of the polarizing positions on the two tails of the bell curve and try to focus on what are the real issues at play here.

CONAN: And have you, in your effort to bring social science to - have you done research on this?

Prof. HOFFMAN: On the cultural frames of climate change?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Yes, yes. I and a few others are starting to work on it now and hope to have some results in about a month or two.

CONAN: And why is it, do you think, that you and your colleagues have ignored this up to now?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, I think, to begin with, a lot of social science research doesn't have a strong interest engaging in practice. The journals that we're supposed to publish in are primarily theoretical in orientation. And so issues of topical relevance, kind of get left by the wayside.

I think there's another issue, too, and that it just takes so long to publish in the academic journals. It can take, you know, upwards of three, four years sometimes. And by then the issue has passed. So I think the rules of academia encourage social scientists not to get into these kinds of debates to focus merely - primarily on the theoretical discussions in the academic journals.

CONAN: There was an interesting piece in The New York Times that quoted, among others, you. But one of the people they quoted was Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who was less than impressed by this proposed field of research. He said: From this confusion they pretend to play Jane Goodall peering in on a strange culture standing in their way. He wrote to the Times in an email: Sorry I'm too busy to give something like that a whole lot of thought right now.

Some of the skeptics' objections are that science - these are elite, elitist scientists and they would put you in that same category.

Prof. HOFFMAN: I guess they would. This is the kind of polarizing language, you know, demonizing one side versus the other. You know, the idea of studying cultures, studying values systems, studying beliefs, this is what the field of sociology and organizational theory does. And it's not, you know, to set it up as studying some culture that's standing in their way. That's not what this is about. It's about promoting understanding of the complex debate that's before us.

CONAN: Are you studying both sides or just...

Prof. HOFFMAN: Yes. Yes. We're studying the differences. We're trying to understand what frames and logic are used on one side, what frames and logic are used on the other side, and are they talking a similar language and similar frames or are they talking different frames.

CONAN: We're talking with Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan and one of the social scientists now getting involved in research on the cultural aspects of the climate change debate.

800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Is this something that you continue to talk about with people you disagree with? Or is this not one of those productive areas of conversation?

Let's start with Chris, and Chris joins us on the line from Modesto in California.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I've heard the climate debate, sort of - it can be framed in different, I guess, ways depending on the people. Some people frame it from an economic point of view. It could be good or bad for the economy.

Political science in one way, I've recently discovered - I have some family members that live out East that some of them can be pretty religious, and I found that approaching it from a religious or spiritual frame, in the sense that, you know, we'll talk about, you know, if they believe in God or Allah or Jehovah or whatever, and you think that, you know, what he did was holy and good then, you know, if you believe in the creationist idea that he created the Earth, you know, whether you think it's evolution or creation or whatever, you have to look at the fact that you as a good Christian should look at being a good steward of the Earth.

There's even direct Bible passages, and I believe passages in the Quran and other books, and I think people find it disarming a little bit because it's a frame that really isn't (technical difficulties) much of approaching (unintelligible) some modern religious groups that do have very strong environmental bent in the, you know, far right religious areas.

And they do talk about, you know, not radical environmentalism, about - but they do address it from the spiritual view. So I think...

CONAN: And Chris, what happens when you talk to your relatives about this, in that frame? Does it work?

CHRIS: Well, I think they try to bring it back to the science, and many of them, you know, try to get a wide variety of news sources, but they will maybe comment or quote conservative, maybe comment (unintelligible) people who directly challenge the science.

But when you try to just say, okay, let's put the science on the shelf and talk about it from a pure spiritual point of view, you know, it's like, you know, if God is or Allah or Jehovah has, you know, created the Earth and (unintelligible) you know, that's it's holy and everything, then you have to look at the totality of what we're doing on the Earth. And I think that kind of takes a little while to sink in, but I think they do seem to be a little bit more open to it. Not all of them, but it's just something I think that's not tapped into as much because I think that, you know, in America we're a Judeo-Christian society.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: Two-thirds of the people, you know, in recent polls, will say their religion - or believe in God. I think that it's something people should be tapping into because I think there's a lot of - there's some relevance in there, I think that people who may not want to bother going through the science and the statistics may be able to sort of identify with.

CONAN: Well, that's an interesting point. Thanks very much for the phone call.

CHRIS: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Andrew Hoffman, going back to Pew surveys, I know that one of the most reliable predictors of whether one is a Democrat or a Republican is whether one is practicing in religion or not. Have you found religion to be an interesting aspect of this conversation?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Very much so. The reader - the call-in brings up a very important part of this discussion. Mike Hume has a book, "Why We Disagree About Climate Change," and he identifies seven frames or differences that people approach the issue, and one is beliefs about ourselves, the universe that are place within it. And that really has elements of religion and spirituality and faith. And I think climate change, in this sense, really has threads of an age-old debate between faith and reason. I do see threads that connect the climate change debate with evolution versus creationism, and a real skepticism or distrust of environmentalists as focusing on the environment as god, or not having a god at all.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HOFFMAN: So that's a very strong element of the conversation.

CONAN: And as you mentioned, personal freedom and economic liberty are - but there is anger, I think to be fair, on both sides here.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Yeah. Well, on the two tails. I think the vast majority of people are somewhere in the middle trying to figure out where to go on this, what to believe - and there's a lot static and a lot of noise. But again, if it reverts to something akin to abortion politics - and that's a loaded term, I don't mean to make comparisons to...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HOFFMAN: ...abortion - except that in that debate, the two sides talking about two completely different things, life and choice, and only looking for information that confirms their opinion and disconfirms the other's.

CONAN: And that debate has become ossified. You don't find a lot people changing their minds.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Right. And it becomes intractable. It degenerates into something where thoughtful and - thoughtful engagement is over.

CONAN: It also plays a factor in policy. When, I think, The New York Times did an analysis of all the Republican candidates running for the Senate in this election and found that all of those running for Senate in this election were -did not believe that human activity was a cause or a significant cause of global warming.

Prof. HOFFMAN: And I think that just plays to the idea that an entire political party would have some specifically different view of scientific data or scientific process. It really comes down to deeper values and the way they perceive. Among other things, we do find that within the climate skeptical -within the country, there's a - some skepticism about the scientific process, that it's become corrupted, that reviewers and editors will only accept papers that promote the status quo, and the National Science Foundation will only fund research that promotes the logic of climate change; that's a dominant logic and frame value within the climate skeptical community.

CONAN: Our guest again, Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Bob. Bob with us from Rochester, New York.

BOB (Caller): Yes. Hi. I like to also suggest a frame that I've had partial success with. And I think I might know why it's been only partial. The frame I use in some ways is the opposite of the spiritual religious one that was just mentioned. It's the eminently practical one, framing it as a public issue, public safety issue, almost like you would look at why you have fire departments, why you have smoke detectors. In case something happens, you want to be protected, something practical, not environmental, that everybody can be - can agree upon. However, I still run into some resistance because what I think what happens is people are afraid of where it's going to lead. So if you're conservative, on one hand, and you say, okay, I know where you're going. If this means regulation, I'm going to stop right here. I think this happens on the left and the right because values do trump - and ideology do trump empiricism.

I know on the left, when some certain studies came out some times ago about maybe how - and I think the study may be debunked - how women's brains may operate differently than men, very open-minded people on the left immediately dismissed it because they were afraid of what it would lead to. So I think always on the back of everyone's mind, even if we try to frame it as I do or other do's, the question always is, is this going to mean regulation? Is this going to mean discrimination? And that's where the values kick in.

And we feel strongly about those things. We don't feel strongly about data. And we're an emotion-driven people. And I think that's where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

CONAN: I think he's right about numbers having less impact than fears about what this may mean.

Prof. HOFFMAN: I would like to add, too, that if you think about what frames and values resonate with the American public, I think economic values or frames resonate much stronger than many others. I think that if you had scientists talking about theories till they're blue in the face, people still say do you believe that theory. But if you start to have companies paying for this, then I think you'll have people saying, well, it must be true.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is David, David with us from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, Neal, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: My comment is just about the use of the word skeptic. The way you guys are using it, you know, skeptic is a person who is looking for the right answer based on all the information available from both sides. And you guys seem to be using the word as meaning skeptic as just totally against, you know, what climate change seems to mean to mostly, you know, those people that are pushing the fact about climate change.

CONAN: And Andrew Hoffman, I must say this is the terminology that you use that I've read, anyway. Is denier a more closely, a more accurate word, do you think?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, that's an interesting point. You know, the climate skeptic has become sort of the vernacular. And we're trying to focus less on the climate skeptic movement, which is a self-identified group that includes, you know, specific institutes and constituencies, try to focus on climate skeptical, just people within the broader public that are generally trying to work this out and trying to figure this out. So if it at all - you know, this is such a loaded area that if this at all comes across as pejorative, my apologies.

DAVID: And myself, I read both sides, you know. And I do what I can myself to, you know, be a conservationist and, you know, not pollute and things like that, because I totally agree that, you know, when all the evidence comes out and may to point to the climate change thing. But I read both sides. And so I consider myself a skeptic, because I'm looking for the right answer. And I do that by reading what I can from both sides.

CONAN: All right, Dave.

DAVID: So I just - I do feel slightly offended by, you know, everybody using the word skeptic when I think you probably should be using the word denier instead...


DAVID: ...of skeptic.

CONAN: Thank you, David. And before we let you go, Andrew Hoffman, what kind of reaction do you get? Is this a subject that you find that people on all sides are willing to talk about?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, no. It has provoked a response that has caught me a little off-guard. I've gotten some pretty angry emails, some threatening emails from people that - I've been called a terrorist and a criminal for acknowledging that climate change is an issue. It's becoming very, very, very contested. It is very contested. And my hope is that, through this research, just promote more understanding to try and resolve the tensions, if it's at all possible.

CONAN: When you say email threatening - that climate change is an issue, in other words that there is another side.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, yeah. But even just acknowledging that climate change is real...

CONAN: Oh, I see.

Prof. HOFFMAN: ...some have suggested that I and all the other scientists at the University of Michigan are criminals for promoting such an idea.

CONAN: Well, good luck with your research. Appreciate your time today.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan, and he joined us from Montreal.

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