Why We Disagree About the Dangers of Climate Change


The scientific community is mostly in agreement: climate change is real, and it matters. Rising seas, intensified storms, and desertification -- among other problems -- will make life difficult for many and impossible for some in the not-so-distant future. People will die and economies will be threatened. With some variation, this is the scientific community’s best estimate of what the next century will look like.

The American laity, however, sees the risks of climate change very differently. Why? The answer has to do with what we mean by “risk.”

Most risk analysis is based on the idea that science and economics can measure and quantify the world in terms of cost and benefits. Such calculations underlie much of the American regulatory system – it’s the type of math that determines the costs government agencies and business must incur to limit environmental damage or impacts on human health, for example. But this type of risk analysis, though incredibly pervasive, is actually quite limited. Psychologists and sociologists have shown that people just don’t actually understand risk this way.

In fact, our psyches play a crucial role in guiding our rational risk assessments.  Moreover, individuals’ psychological perceptions of risk are shaped and colored by larger cultural forces.  This cultural theory of risk is the key to understanding why many Americans don’t see climate change as a big risk.

Within a society, institutions and people organize their lives around ideas about the world – whether nature is a cornucopia to be enjoyed and exploited, a fragile network susceptible to destruction from the slightest interference, or something in between.  We base our lives on how we see the world, and we come to see the world based on how we live our lives.

Different societies identify different risks based on how a society and its institutions understand the world. Market institutions are based on the belief that individuals can turn nature’s challenges into opportunities. Hierarchical institutions are based on the belief that nature can be controlled through the coordinated action of experts. These two organizational systems are the defining institutions in American society today, but while both systems remain committed to the idea that humans can control nature, they differ in their beliefs about how humans should use this power.

A risk, then, is something that threatens to upset the vision of the world that serves as the foundation for an institution. Individualists, embracing the market, believe individuals pursue their rational self-interest and will find solutions to the risks posed by climate change.  Hierachicalists, however, believe in the technocratic administration of a scientific elite. They seek the sort of all-encompassing, techno-rational fixes embodied in the Kyoto Protocol.

The scientific establishment’s risk perception largely adheres to this hierarchicalist worldview. The American laity’s perception, however, seems better explained by the individualist worldview.

For individualists, the risk of climate change may be less the destruction of habitat or ecosystems and more the threat of increased government regulation or the increased costs of gas. Individualists see themselves, America, and possibly the world as able to handle the costs of climate change, and thus see expensive precautions as unjustified.

Certainly, there are those who think climate change is a lie, an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the liberal elite. But there are far more who see climate change as a real phenomenon, but who are relatively dispassionate about it and feel little apprehension about its risks.

The continuing gulf between scientific and lay assessments of risk serves as strong evidence that “facts” alone cannot create consensus. Particularly in the realm of climate change where, though consensus exists on the science, the long time-scales and distant impacts mean that uncertainty still dominates, it is important to recognize that “facts” should not always take precedence over values.

Moreover, the assumption that discontinuities between lay and scientific perceptions of climate change’s risks can be readily bridged with further education of the laity rests on the belief that “facts” are the most important element in shaping opinion.  The continued – and increasing – discrepancies between lay and scientific assessments of risk from climate change may suggest that in fact a difference in the underlying values and worldviews lies at the heart of these differences.

More facts will not bridge this gap, but more conversation might.  Debate and conversation among scientists and the laity could allow for recognition of the validity of public opinion in a field where differing opinions have been dismissed and ridiculed. Moreover, rational discourse could foster the creation of a shared moral consensus among scientists and the public. This moral consensus could then serve as the foundation for a common understanding of the interaction between humans and nature and, therefore, a more closely shared perception of the risk of climate change.

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