Book Review: How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate by Andrew Hoffman

March 11, 2015 | 10:55 am
Aaron Huertas
Former Contributor

A few years ago, my colleagues and I worked with Andrew Hoffman, the director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, to host a forum on increasing public understanding of climate change. The event sticks with me because the participants came from so many different backgrounds: environmental justice, Creation care, energy production, social science, media, climate science, and service in Congress.

Hoffman has condensed the myriad approaches to climate communication we discussed that day — and much more — into an indispensable guide. At a slim 100 pages, Hoffman’s book offers a fine distillation of the growing body of social science that explains our curious and conflicting approaches to climate issues. In addition to identifying the problematic ways we often approach climate change, he also suggests several potential ways forward that can restore the climate debate to what he calls a “more civilized plane.”

Cover of How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate by Andrew J. Hoffman

Andrew Hoffman’s “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate,” available today.

The book could serve as an excellent primer for campaigners and practitioners who are relatively new to working on climate issues. It also offers an excellent refresher for those of us who have been working in climate communications for years and who can benefit from regularly revisiting both the social science and our assumptions about how audiences approach climate issues. The book is particularly valuable for anyone who feels frustrated with how people’s political opinions seem to dictate their views about climate science.

Hoffman’s book is information-dense, for sure, but don’t let that put you off. His writing is punchy and engaging, his arguments are well articulated, and the book is well worth reading.

The right diagnosis

Hoffman smartly weaves together a few narratives which help explain dissent among policymakers and citizens on climate science:

First, fossil fuel companies have invested significant sums of money and public relations power in spreading misinformation about climate science and climate policy. Second, their misinformation campaigns have been tailored to appeal not the vast majority of Americans, but to a sub-set of policymakers and citizens who are predisposed — for ideological reasons that have little to nothing to do with science — to oppose climate policies.

The resulting public conflict over climate policy and climate science has been amplified and reinforced by prominent politicians, particularly through polarized, opinion-driven media outlets. Therefore, most Americans have come to view climate change as a cultural issue, rather than an issue of managing societal and environmental risk. Put another way, Hoffman told me, the climate debate looks acrimonious, both to insiders and outsiders and often looks and feels more like a “sporting match” than a democratic debate.

Given these circumstances, Hoffman argues, there is no silver bullet method for climate communication, but there is plenty of silver buckshot.

Different brokers for different audiences

Hoffman suggests that audiences who are averse to responding to climate risks need to hear from “brokers” who share their values and who are already successfully integrating climate science into their work.

Former Rep. Bob Inglis, who argues for conservative, free market approaches for tackling climate change. (Source: Twitter)

A business owner who is skeptical about climate legislation – and climate science – probably wants to hear from another business owner about the advantages of energy efficiency and the shrinking pay-back period for solar panels, for instance. They probably don’t want to hear about the plight of the polar bear.

A libertarian probably wants to hear about reducing or eliminating insurance subsidies for coastal properties that flood more often as sea-levels rise. They probably don’t want to hear about special subsidies for green power and they might, in fact, oppose all technology-specific energy subsidies.

More broadly, Hoffman argues that we have to do more to “separate the problem from the solution.” Just because climate change creates risks for individuals and society, he points out, that doesn’t mean that someone who uses those risks to justify a particular policy outcome is unquestionably correct.

In an ideal world, of course, politicians would accept the science, which broadly outlines the problems climate change creates, while vigorously debating, and eventually compromising on, responsive policy prescriptions. In the absence of a rational political discourse at the national level, however, climate communicators must work from the bottom up.

Try a little sympathy

It’s a mistake for climate campaigners to insist that people should care about climate change for the same reasons they do, Hoffman argues. The problem is too big, tied deeply to values we have about the role of government in public life, and government’s relationship to business. We have to respect where people are coming from on climate before we can go anywhere together.

I’ve separately argued that the “brokers” Hoffman identifies can also be thought of as “climate change first responders.” They are the men and women who have already integrated climate science and climate risks into what they do every day, from coastal planners, to firefighters to mayors and county commissioners.

Hoffman leaves the reader with another metaphor, too, and I think I like it even more. We are not addicts hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, he says. Instead we can think ourselves as a “collective of people who are lost on a terrain they thought they knew but that has now somehow changed. We may have had bad maps all along and now we really don’t know where to go.”

Addressing climate change, he argues, will not involve telling people their tattered map of the old world was even worse than ours. It will involve working together, building trust, and overcoming people’s fears, both about climate change itself and about the policies we must consider if we want to deal with climate risks. In this sense, the “brokers” and “first responders” might be better thought of as scouts: they are looking at the shifting territory ahead of us, and coming back to tell us how we can explore the new terrain and redraw our maps, together.

How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate by Andrew J. Hoffman is available through Stanford University Press and Amazon. It is on sale now and will be available for shipping and download on March 11.