The Climate Crisis – Why Do We Fight About It?

We need to find better ways to communicate about the climate crisis. Find out how cultural values influence environmental behavior.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten into arguments about the climate crisis.  I’ve never been able to figure out why a proven scientific fact is still so emotional and controversial.

A few years ago, I even took a university course called Making Sense of Climate Science Denial.  It was excellent, and it gave me all the technical answers to climate myths.  They also taught us how to present those answers convincingly.  Yet, somehow, that never seemed to be enough.

We know that there has been a deliberate campaign to sow doubt about the climate crisis.  It’s been around for at least 30 years.  While it’s true that the fossil fuel industry actively encouraged and funded the climate denial lobby, it wasn’t merely a matter of greed.  The so-called scientists referred to by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming weren’t in it for the money alone.

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Their underlying concern was a strong distaste for the government

Their real agenda was based on their values.  Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz and Fred Singer were among the original climate contrarians.  Their underlying concern was a strong distaste for the government.  Before they took on the climate crisis, they also spoke out against regulating tobacco for the same reasons.

They didn’t take these stances merely because they were terrible or greedy people.  Their motivation was their values.  This cabal strongly condemned Big Government intruding on peoples’ lives.

Unfortunately, these ideals led them away from science and into the political realm. As Oreskes and Conway put it, “It is a story about a group of scientists who fought the scientific evidence and spread confusion on many of the most important issues of our time.”

Whether or not we act on the environment depends on our deepest values

That leaves two questions.. “What would make them do such a thing?” and “Why would anyone believe them?”  Researchers from the University of Illinois seem to have hit on the answer.  In their paper published in Sustainability Science, they’ve shown that whether or not we act on the environment depends on our deepest values.  These values also line up directly with our political views.

The research team did a study focused on visitors to Denali National Park in Alaska.  Denali is what we used to call Mount McKinley.  It’s the highest mountain in North America.  It’s been called Denali in the Koyukon language for as long as anyone can remember.  Denali means “the great one.”

The original proponents of the park back in 1915 wanted to call both the park and the mountain Denali, but they were overruled.  The Secretary of the Interior officially reversed that decision and renamed them both Denali in 2015.

They picked Denali because the evidence of the climate crisis is unavoidable there. 

People flock to Denali to see the Big Five; moose, grizzly bears, caribou, wolves and Dall sheep.  Yet, that’s not why the research team chose it for their study.  They picked Denali because the evidence of the climate crisis is unavoidable there.  The loss of sea ice, along with the melting of permafrost, makes global warming more acute in higher northern latitudes.  Scientists call this the “Arctic amplification.”

The team surveyed park visitors, starting out asking if they agreed with statements like, “Our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth were more equal,” and, “The government interferes far too much in our everyday lives.”  Responses to statements like these allowed the team to assess what the scientists called the “cultural values” of each respondent.

They found that most visitors to Denali value self-interest and see others as equals.  Respondents tend to reflect the pioneer values of self-reliance and being neighborly.  Everyone needs to pull their weight, and nobody is any better than anybody else.

They also asked the park visitors about various kinds of green behaviors.  These included things like recycling, voting, calling their senators or volunteering.  They found that they could predict who took part in environmental activities based on their cultural values. 

Their findings are complicated.  The study looks at three separate layers of value structures and how they interact to impact complex behavior.  I’ll keep this simple so I can understand it.  In a nutshell, people with hierarchical values tend to be authoritarian.

Authoritarian people tend not to take part in environmental activities like recycling.  The opposite of hierarchical is egalitarian.  These latter kinds of people tend to feel at one with nature, care about the environment and think and act green.

Tree huggers like me need to rethink how we present our message.

What this means is that tree huggers like me need to rethink how we present our message.  It’s not about appealing to our own cultural values.  When we do that, we’re preaching to the converted.  The message needs to be presented in ways that appeal to the cultural values of those who tend not to think about the climate crisis.

Here’s how Assistant Professor Carena Van Riper put it.  “For example, if you’re telling someone who has a hierarchical worldview that an environmental policy will benefit all people equally, your message might not register.  But if you talk about the same policy in terms of what will be achieved and the freedoms won by all people, then all of a sudden, this group will hear you and might be more open to further discussions.”

Strange as it may seem, this subject hasn’t had many studies up until now.  As Professor Van Riper says, “The role of cultural values in helping us understand behavior change is currently underrepresented in the conservation science literature.”  This needs to change.  Activists need to understand the psychology of climate crisis denial better to address the issue.  We don’t have much time to get this done.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Making Sense of Climate Science Denial
Merchants of Doubt
University of Illinois
Integrating multi-level values and pro-environmental behavior in a U.S. protected area

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