Is climate change the new abortion debate? That’s the intriguing question posed in a sociological report that attempts to ferret out the ideology underlining climate skepticism.
The report’s author, University of Michigan professor Andrew Hoffman, suggests that those involved in the climate debate are experiencing tunnel vision by focusing mainly on science and policy. Doing so, Hoffman says, ignores the danger that the debate has become a “logic schism” in which two sides take warring positions that no scientific evidence can shake – i.e., abortion politics.
Hoffman attended skeptic conferences to try to understand if this was indeed the case. It seems like he found strong evidence it is: As he points out, a 2009 Pew Research Center survey found that one of the strongest predictors of which side people fall on in the climate debate is political affiliation, with 75 percent of Democrats believing in global warming and 35 percent of Republicans doubting its existence. And a recent increase in skepticism among the U.S. public also suggests an ideological motivator – according to the Pew center, only 57 percent of Americans in 2009 believed climate change is occurring as compared with 71 percent in 2008.
So what keeps a skeptic from embracing the majority scientific viewpoint that humans are causing global warming?
Hoffman found three reasons:
1. Liberal conspiracy theories: Skeptics believe that climate-change legislation is a sneaky way for the government to diminish personal freedom, Hoffman says.
2. A belief in the free market: Skeptics think climate laws will throw a monkey wrench into the U.S. economic engine, and that renewable energy won’t work without the government providing subsidies, he says.
3. Distrust of the peer-review process: As seen in the ClimateGate e-mail blow-up, skeptics seem to believe that scientists have become corrupt, publishing only the work of their friends and fellow global-warming believers.
Hoffman suggests that we as a society need to deal with these cultural issues before serious climate-change progress can be made. As he says:
Some may argue that the climate skeptic movement is small and thus irrelevant to the debate on what to do about climate change, but as social scientists, we cannot endorse such flippant dismissal. If, as we suspect, skeptics invoke climate frames that resemble abortion politics, this has serious policy implications. As long as members of the skeptic movement are included in the policy debate and sway the opinions of some lawmakers, their discourse is critically relevant.
So, for any skeptics reading: Did Hoffman read your mind, or is he totally off base? (For the full PDF report, click here.)