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Snubbing Skeptics Threatens to Intensify Climate War, Study Says

By Evan Lehmann (The New York Times) - March 10, 2011

Listening to climate change doubters, and not dismissing them, might avert a “logic schism” similar to the political stalemate on abortion, according to a new paper involving research on skeptics.

The paper portrays doubters as being at a disadvantage. The majority of climate research comes from the fields of physical science, engineering and economics — largely depicting rational outcomes in a world dominated by the view that the Earth is warming, and that something needs to be done about it.

What’s missing, the research says, are studies that seek to understand the cultural responses of people who question those findings. It’s no surprise, after all, that a large segment of humans resist the majority opinion — on nearly every topic.

That insight by social scientists was illustrated by what the paper describes as the “climate whiplash” of the last two years, when polling showed an eroding number of people who believe in global warming. Establishing a scientific consensus on warming represents the beginning, not the end, of building a “social consensus,” the paper says.

“You’re asking people to rethink their values, and that’s not gonna go down easy,” said Andrew Hoffman, a professor of business and environmental policy at the University of Michigan and the paper’s author.

He holds his colleagues in the social sciences partly responsible for failing to foresee the growing impasse, or perhaps even contributing to it. The paper contends that researchers have largely ignored the conservative politics around climate change, describing it as a “critical component” of the debate.

“The dearth of research on climate resistance, uncertainty and apathy must change to understand the full landscape of the conflict,” the 54-page paper says. “In short, it is problematic to sample on the dependent variable, and it is folly to only research organizations and debates among groups that already agree that solutions to climate change are necessary.”

Hair-raising warnings about climate catastrophes tend not to resonate with the skeptical crowd, the research says. And expensive government solutions to it definitely do not. Another way of talking about the issue is needed, the paper says.

“When presenting the climate change issue, it is critical that the frames and categories used do not threaten people’s values and therefore [create] dismissive resistance to the argument,” the paper says, noting that “dormant” climate connections to religion, technology and national security might work better.

Research born from ‘bait and switch’

Hoffman stumbled into the project when the university asked him to meet with a potential donor. Instead of contributing money, the unnamed man gave Hoffman a piece of his mind. He railed against the professor for teaching environmental issues in a business school and aggressively promoted the notion that climate change is the product of a corrupt peer-review process and liberal politics.

“I was pretty angry,” Hoffman said of the “bait and switch” meeting. “He was trying to evangelize me.”

It wasn’t the last time Hoffman associated with the man, however. The meeting sparked a research idea in Hoffman, and the climate skeptic became a facilitator of the project by providing a plane ticket for Hoffman’s research assistant to a major conference against climate change policies hosted by the Heartland Institute, a conservative group that promotes free-market principles. While there, he served as a “climate denier insider” who introduced the researcher to a host of attendees for interviews and other observational field work for the paper.

“I don’t think that was his intention,” Hoffman said of the man. “I think his intention was to convert her [the researcher].”

Hoffman’s small team also studied almost 800 published opinion pieces and letters to the editor since 2008, slicing every sentence into categories that reveal cultural lenses through which the skeptical writers viewed climate change.

The findings indicate that people who are skeptical about climate change are talking about different issues than those who want to do something about it. Most skeptical writers haven’t accepted the scientific underpinnings of rising temperatures, while advocates for action are promoting policies to address the findings.

The trick, Hoffman says, is to find ways to talk about the same thing.

“I don’t want to use terminology like ‘I’m looking for middle ground,’” he said. “This isn’t about splitting the difference. It’s about opening channels of communication. Because if they break down and we fall into a logic schism, like abortion, then it just becomes a game of power and dominance and discussion collapses.”

‘Fanciful’ thinking or ‘fertile ground’?

But to some, Hoffman’s theory sounds idealistic.

“I think he’s looking for a third way out besides conflict,” said Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, who pointed to classic theories of social movements and countermovements.

“To define a way that says, ‘Well, we don’t have to have a power struggle here,’ is to sort of engage in a fanciful notion of how social order is created and maintained,” he added. “I find that to be a politically naive viewpoint. The stakes here are enormous. For the oil and gas industry, it is literally trillions of dollars of investments that they’re protecting. The idea that they’re going to give this up without a fight is, I think, naive.”

Overall, Brulle accepts Hoffman’s assertions, but he suggested that his paper could be stronger if it cited more sociological research.

Still, the paper, which has been peer-reviewed and accepted for the March edition of Organization and Environment, provides two definitions of climate doubters. Hoffman says that “deniers” will never believe in climate change, while skeptical people might.

James Taylor might fall into the denier category, but he probably doesn’t see a problem with that. As a senior fellow for environment policy at the Heartland Institute, Taylor believes scientific conclusions debunk the notion of rapidly rising temperatures.

“Does it interest me to find ways to communicate? It’s easy for the various groups to work more antagonistically than cooperatively,” Taylor said, when asked if it was possible to achieve Hoffman’s idea of opening dialogue. “It certainly would be helpful to have scientists with different takes on climate science engaging with each other, rather than sniping at each other.”

Some climate scientists, like Judith Curry, who heads the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have engaged the skeptical community — and paid a price for it. She’s been criticized from both sides of the debate, but most recently by climate believers.

Hoffman’s research, she said in an e-mail, points to “fertile ground” for discussion between moderate people who believe in climate change and those who don’t.

“I am in total agreement that more sociological understanding of the overall climate debate is needed,” she said. “I also agree that focusing on issues like natural security and technology should provide the pillars for some bridge building.”