'Cultural Cognition' Theory Offers a Path to Climate Change Progress

by Matthew Freeman

August 25, 2016

Over the course of the last few decades, one of the great communications challenges facing progressives has been, and continues to be, how we talk about climate change. The difficulty in persuading politicians and the public about the need for action isn’t just that the effort has run head-long into a massive and well-funded industry campaign designed to sow confusion. It’s also that the policy changes needed to  make a difference fairly drip with disruption of one sort or another — new and different sources of energy, impacts on local industry and job markets, conservation of energy that affects individual behavior and more.

Our current dialogue about climate change understandably reflects its origins in the scientific and environmental communities. Proponents of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including CPR’s scholars and staff, often point out the vast potential damage to the environment, and the corresponding threats to public health, coastal communities, agriculture, and more. Opponents typically respond with several lines of argument that all end with, “… and so we should do nothing much about it.” Sometimes they argue that climate change, if it exists, is a natural phenomenon that’s not caused by human activity, so we should do nothing. Or they deny climate change altogether, cherry-pick a few weather data points … and so we should do nothing. Or they observe that doing something could be costly and disruptive … and so we should do nothing. Those arguments inevitably boil down to either denying science or trying to “yeah, but” it to death.

As someone in the business of communicating about policy issues, it’s incredibly frustrating to come across an issue where the science is robust and overwhelming, the problem is immense, the danger is clear and present, the opposing arguments are risible, and yet much of the public and polity are resistant.

A new article in the University of Illinois Law Review from CPR President Rob Verchick takes on the challenge of communicating about climate change, identifying some of the disconnects that hamper persuasion on the issue, and suggesting a way forward. Verchick’s focus is on “cultural cognition” theory, which observes that people examine, evaluate, and come to understand issues through the lens of their own cultural values. So in the case of climate change, opponents aren’t likely to be moved by the further accumulation of scientific data and the deployment of more exclamation marks. As Verchick writes,

[P]rogress will not come through increased education or insulated blue-ribbon committees. Instead, the public will turn its attention to climate change only when political leaders and judges are able to communicate about the problem in ways that resonate with an audience’s cultural values. The currency in this democratic project is not knowledge, but trust. When trust is won and values affirmed, desired interpretations of facts and information follow.

What’s new and especially intriguing about Verchick’s article is that he creates something of a roadmap for doing that. Much of the conversation — and most of the fighting — over climate change has focused on mitigation and prevention — that is, reducing emissions as a way to prevent climate change or at least to reduce it. But much of the progress on climate change has come in the area of adaptation — doing what we can to protect our shared infrastructure, our homes and communities, from the effects of climate change that are already upon us or those that are unalterably on the way.

He notes, for example, that Republican governors Rick Scott of Florida and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, neither of whom are on board with prevention and mitigation efforts, both embraced large-scale adaptation efforts, presumably because the reality of climate change hit too close to home for them to ignore. Championing adaptation efforts therefore reaffirmed local cultural values, making it politically safe, even beneficial, for them to act, without having to rethink their stated views on climate change writ large.

Verchick sees that as a way not just to make progress on adaptation, but as a bridge to communicating with Americans who are doubtful about the reality of climate change in the first place. He writes,

[M]ost adaptation efforts are more local, tangible, and accessible. This allows adaptation to appeal to both the open-hearted environmentalist and the security-minded traditionalist. And if we find that appeals to adaptation soften the skepticism of climate deniers, we may make wider inroads for climate change mitigation as well.

The article is well worth the read. You’ll find an abstract here, with a link to the full article.

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Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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