How the Climate Change Debate Became a Partisan Culture War

As this season is drawing to a close, the world is left to mull over the assortment of climate phenomena that made the 2012 northern hemisphere summer exceptional. Massive drought struck the heartland of the U.S., possibly resulting in $20 billion in insured crop losses; in Asia, the heaviest rainfall in 60 years hit Beijing in July, forcing the evacuation of 65,000 people; neighboring North Korea has fared worse in their struggle against the water: 212,000 have been left homeless and 65,000 hectares of cropland have been affected as floods ravaged through an already perilously impoverished nation. Arctic sea ice and Greenland ice sheet melting have, and will, set new records; despite lacking the element of immediate human tragedy, these events are no less remarkable in the course of our current climatic reality. 

In the wake of these occurrences, what are we to make of our situation? What can I say the next time small talk turns to its perennial subject — the old “how ‘bout that weather?” Discomfortingly, what used to be an innocuous issue has become highly divisive; Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale who studies public perception of climate change, observes, “Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is.” In a column for the journal Nature, Kahan cites his own research to explain the polarization of views on climate change. People, inevitably biased by their personal values, will draw starkly different conclusions from the same information; strikingly, even “impressions of what the recent weather has been are polarized, too, and bear little relationship to reality.” Needless to say, the issue becomes intractable when there’s such marked controversy, even when it comes to perceivable reality. 

“Climate change,” writes Andrew J. Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, “has become enmeshed in the so-called culture wars.” In his article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Hoffman explains how “cultural processing” affects the understanding of climate change; echoing Kahan, Hoffman describes how “instead of investigating a complex issue, we often simply learn what our referent group believes and seek to integrate those beliefs with our own views.” As a matter of self-affirmation and as a rational response to the costly prospect of diverging from the views of a person’s own relevant community, people hold politicized opinions on climate change, often regardless of the scientific merits of their views.

One of the conclusions Hoffman draws from his analysis of the cultural digestion of the matter is that, “Climate change is an existential challenge to our contemporary worldviews.” Carbon dioxide emissions are a byproduct of prosperity, thus generally correlated with something desirable; additionally, CO2 is a natural constituent of our biosphere, something that in the right proportions makes life possible. Nevertheless, if one accepts that the buildup of greenhouse gases poses a threat, one must begin to look at CO2 emissions “as a relative, not absolute, hazard.” Having considered the role of humanity’s activities within the global ecosystem, one must then wonder if mankind’s power has grown to the point that “we can alter and manage the ecosystem on a planetary scale.” Hoffman rightly observes that this “is a huge cultural question that alters our worldviews.” The experiment of humanity upon the larger Petri dish of life would stand to be reexamined under this new light.

It’s no wonder that the issue of climate change inflames us; regardless of which side you’re on, it is a fight over culture at an unprecedented scale. The current politicization of climate change in America, which has turned it into a partisan issue, has ultimately stalled discussion by appealing to the rank passions that fuel “hot-button” issues. Ultimately, the politicization of climate change is inevitable, but we should hope that it results in more enlightened debate than what is currently the case.

I’m inspired to quote Margaret Thatcher in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in which she warns of climate change (part of which can be seen here). She cites Fred Hoyle: “It is life itself, incomparably precious, that distinguishes us from the other planets. It is life itself, human life, the innumerable species of our planet, that we wantonly destroy. It is life itself that we must battle to preserve.”

This article is part three in a four-part series on climate change. Check out parts one and two