Incremental? Yes. But A Growing Role for Social Sciences in Climate Change Dialog

No more assuming that scientific data alone will carry the day with the public and its policymakers. The continuing climate change polarization shows more of the same approach won’t work. Michigan Professor Andrew Hoffman insists that social scientists increasingly need to be part of the dialog.

“Incrementalism.”  It’s a term often applied to the long-term and nonlinear projected impacts of climate change, and also to the incremental, but steadily increasing, concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Some regret that the term may apply also to the role of the social sciences in an issue long — and perhaps too long — characterized as being the domain of the earth sciences.

Andrew Hoffman of University of Michigan

No longer. The University of Michigan’s Andrew Hoffman is one of a growing number of respected social scientists helping to change that situation.

Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment, had a moment of revelation in May 2009.

He was asked to meet with a potential donor to the business school expressing an interest in sustainability.

Hoffman soon found himself in a tense debate with the donor over the validity of climate change. The donor said that he thought the scientific review process was corrupt. He then asked Hoffman why he wanted to destroy capitalism by teaching issues like environmental problems and sustainability in a business school. The would-be donor viewed environmentalists with suspicion, as wanting to destroy the economy.

“I left the room pretty upset,” Hoffman says. “Then I realized that he was expressing a deeply held world view and that he was trying to evangelize me.”

That conversation illustrates a springboard for a growing effort in the climate change debate: the push to better involve social scientists who for too long had been inadequately represented in climate change discussions.

Greater Role, Visibility of Social Scientists

Hoffman, joined by a chorus of other social scientists, argues that the physical sciences alone cannot carry the day with public opinion. He joins his colleagues in calling for a larger and more visible role for social scientists who examine how people learn and understand and the motivations for people’s thoughts and behavior. Their view is that the social sciences can help bridge the gap between those who deny much of the scientific evidence on climate change and those who urge action to address it.

The point here is fairly clear: earth scientists for too long have failed to convincingly reach out to the broad public and policymakers and to challenge climate contrarians based on scientific evidence. The result: continued and heightened public misunderstanding and increasingly vocal opposition from those challenging underlying science and/or calls for action. By this reasoning, scientists have simply assumed that their evidence and their science would carry the day with the public and its policymakers. The continuing polarization on climate change is convincing more people that the same, traditional approach won’t work.

In “The Culture and Discourse of Climate Skepticism,” Hoffman takes issue with the view held by some that the public will be won over by more data. Social scientists increasingly need to be part of the dialog, he insists, as they can examine and understand the “deeper ideological and cultural influence of both the definition of the problem and consideration of solutions,” moving the discussions from a scientific consensus to a social consensus.

Social scientists can engage the three-quarters of the population who think climate change is real, but are uncertain what to do about it, he argues. They would explore such issues as the level of faith in the scientific process, how much legitimacy scientists have as experts on the issue, the appropriate role of government, and how restrictions might impinge on a sense of personal freedom.

Data Without Deeper Engagement … Expect More of Same

“If you just keep pounding on the latest IPCC reports without engaging these deeper issues, this won’t go forward,” he says. Examining issues that prompt the public to feel a certain way will do more to help reach a consensus that climate change is an issue worthy of attention, he says. He argues that social scientists can be critical in framing messages so they don’t have a polarizing effect, thereby helping to bring parties to the table.

This view is supported by research by social scientist Anthony Leiserowitz*, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a co-author of the 2009 “Global Warming’s Six Americas” study. The climate understanding study finds Americans divided into six groups: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive, with the majority resting in the middle categories. The research helps illustrate how individuals in those various groupings get climate change information.

Leiserowitz says social scientists provide a key component: knowing the audience.

“If you don’t know who they are, their underlying values, and who they trust, it’s like throwing darts into a dark room,” he said. His research indicates that most Americans see climate change as a distant problem, one that will not directly affect them. By better understanding what motivates people, social scientists can ensure that the information reaches them in a way that they will better understand it.

For example, he cites the down sides of using the threatened polar bear as a symbol for the consequences of climate change. While the iconic mammal endears some to the climate issue, it also reinforces the notion of risks being remote. Leiserowitz says that while there are clear risks to polar bears, the Arctic, and other distant places and species, climate change also poses serious implications for issues most Americans care about: human health, national security and economic competitiveness.

Those issues can be obscured amidst images, however compelling, of endangered polar bears and melting glaciers in far-off places. “You’ve got to help people make the connection to what they care about,” he says.

David Skole of Michigan State University

Social scientists “have a contribution to make in understanding the societal impacts, how we can better understand how different parts of our society perceive the science, why they come to the conclusions they do and their rationale,” says David Skole, a professor of forestry and global change science at Michigan State University. He agrees that social scientists are in the best position to figure out how to better inform people’s behavior, for instance getting people to turn off lights or use less gas.

Baruch Fischhoff, Howard Heinz professor of social and decision sciences and engineering and public policy at Carnegie-Melon University, says social scientists can also provide pivotal information on possible options and how those options might work, for example, dispelling perceptions that emissions trading programs inevitably are “just another shell game.”

Will More Experts Equal More Complexity?

Roger Pielke, Jr. of University of Colorado

“Just understanding why people think the way they do won’t help change their minds,” Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at The University of Colorado, cautions. He says that involving social scientists on its own won’t necessarily lead to a productive outcome. It could actually also add to complexity, with more experts in different fields expressing an ever-wider range of opinions. He urges having a contingent focused on the practical boundary between knowledge and action, with the social scientists part of that team.

Ray Weymann, an astrophysics professor and staff member emeritus of Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California, agrees that scientists have been so busy trying to get the science out that “we pay less attention to how we should communicate it.” He agrees that social scientists could be extremely helpful, especially in understanding the motivation for the “dismissives” who rely on talk radio and the like for their climate change information. He points to the 2010 death of Stanford scientist Stephen H. Schneider, a physical scientist considered to be one of the most effective communicators on climate change science: “We also need physical scientists who communicate well, not just social scientists.”

Kevin Trenberth of NCAR

Some climate scientists are skeptical that social scientists can succeed in swaying climate change deniers. Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Co., says resistance to action on climate change stems in part from philosophical and political concerns about implications of government intervention and regulation. And he says there will continue to be those who will forever deny there is a problem, impeding any real consensus on the issue.

Riley Dunlap, an environmental sociologist and Regents Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University who specializes in studying climate change denial, agrees. But Dunlap nonetheless supports efforts to better understand where climate science “deniers” get their information in order to better understand how best to fashion effective climate change messages and information.

Richard S. Lindzen of MIT

But social scientist messages aren’t expected to sway climate skeptic Richard S. Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The science is so poor on this issue” that the public is justified in doubting much of the concern over climate change, he says. He expresses concerns also that social scientists may have financial motivations in trying to get involved: going after climate change research funding. That’s a talking point climate contrarians make about climate scientists in general.

But Trenberth says ultimately that social scientists offer great promise in helping to alleviate the current polarization.

And he’s cautious, yet hopeful, about the results: “Surely we can make some progress.”

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert, who has covered the environment for more than two decades for national publications, is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mi. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: julie@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @julhalps)
Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Incremental? Yes. But A Growing Role for Social Sciences in Climate Change Dialog

  1. Deflated says:

    You had me until this unfortunate section:
    “David Skole, a professor of forestry and global change science at Michigan State University. He agrees that social scientists are in the best position to figure out how to better inform people’s behavior, for instance getting people to turn off lights or use less gas.”
    It is statements like these that reify the oversimplification of the climate-society problem and the role of social scientists. Social sciences have so much more to offer in terms of understanding human-environment relationships in the context of the climate problem. Getting people to turn off lights and “understand” the climate change science are old, entrenched ideas created and perpetuated by people like Kevin Trenberth and Roger Pielke, Jr. How about get some new, younger voices in the mix who are actually changing the way we do and think about climate change science? This article is disappointing.