Climate Change as Culture War


The social and political debate over climate change continues unabated, despite an ever worsening procession of extreme weather events and increasingly dire scientific climate projections (on track for a 4 degree warmer world).

While there is a significant over-estimation of the extent of climate change denial within society, those who reject the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change appear to have become even more strident, despite the overwhelming weight of climate science.


Trying to understand the vehemence of those opposed to action on climate change is often hard to fathom.  There is a clear scientific consensus on the urgent threat that ever-increasing greenhouse gases pose. Moreover, we are after all talking about encouraging innovation in technologies and energy systems that will get us off our addiction to limited and polluting fossil fuels, let alone mitigate the threats of sea-level rise, ocean acidification, increasing extreme weather events and an unhabitable ecosystem.

Understanding resistance to the need to reduce greenhouse gases however has deeper psychological and sociological roots. For some, acceptance of the concept of anthropogenic climate change appears to strike at the very heart of their world view and personal identity. This is where the social sciences are so important in seeking to better understand human emotion and cognition on critical social issues such as climate change.

The fact that this is not really about the science of climate change but a deeper ideological and values-based debate was emphasised recently in a keynote lecture at the University of Sydney, by visiting US academic Professor Andy Hoffman. Andy is the Holcim Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan and Director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, and visited the University of Sydney to take part in a symposium organised by the University’s Business School and the Sydney Network on Climate Change and Society on organizational responses to climate change.

His keynote lecture on Wednesday 20th March, entitled “The Social Sciences and Climate Change: Structuring the Sources of Distrust”, highlighted how despite a scientific consensus on the urgency of anthropogenic climate change, in the US (and Australia) we have yet to achieve a social consensus. Here he stressed how at the core of the opposition to climate science lies a conflict of values. These include differences in religious beliefs, attitudes to the role of government, trust in the market, the value of nature, and faith in science. In seeking to develop a social consensus on climate change, Professor Hoffman stressed how the role of different “broker frames” are key to engaging with those who are uncommitted on this critical social issue (a more detailed articulation of his argument can be found in his article in Stanford Social Innovation Review).

As a postscript it was interesting to see that local climate change contrarians such as Jo Nova lost no time rejecting Professor Hoffman’s argument as ‘pop psychology‘! Ironically, perusal of her blog and its commentators (with reference to ‘losing teams’, ‘government intervention’, ‘socialism’ and ‘freedom’) as well as associated climate skeptic blogs, provide ample confirmation of Professor Hoffman’s thesis that ideology and values are critical in framing our understandings of climate change!

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