Hoffman Provides Climate Change Debate Insights

How do you talk to people about climate change?

Apparently many of us do not. Surveys show that 60 percent of Americans rarely, if ever, discuss global warming with their family or friends, Andrew Hoffman told a packed house at his March 22 presentation at the Lyric Theatre.

Brought to Blacksburg by the Global Change Center, Hoffman’s talk, “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate,” provided some guidelines for such conversations. Visiting from the University of Michigan, where he is the Holcim Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the Ross School of Business and the School of Environment and Sustainability, Hoffman advised audience members to direct their energy to the “undecideds,” those people who are neither at one end of the climate change spectrum (alarmed) nor the other (deniers).

Hoffman introduced his talk by emphasizing the importance of communicating to broad audiences. He recommended being aware of and understanding one’s audience, and he urged listeners to use storytelling to engage conversation partners.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, was at first very tentative in its language, Hoffman said, but that language has grown stronger with each report. The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences both use the word “consensus” when talking about climate change; these organizations do not leave room for doubt about scientific findings, Hoffman said.

But climate change as a cultural issue is different from climate change as a scientific issue. The debate over climate change is about conflicting worldviews, Hoffman said, and people who don’t understand this can make no progress. “It’s a cultural divide,” he stated.

With a background in chemical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, and management, Hoffman has now turned to social psychology to develop his understanding of the climate change debate in the United States.

Hoffman introduced the sociological concept of “social facts,” the idea that something is a “fact” when we all accept it as true. If we want to change beliefs or behavior, he said, we need to understand four main points:

  1. We all use cognitive filters.
  2. We are all affected by our groups, our cultural identity.
  3. We are “cultural misers”—we use shortcuts in decision making, because we can’t possibly be experts about everything. In taking these shortcuts, cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning.
  4. Our political economy and confused public debate creates inertia and resistance to change.

Hoffman also presented four forms of distrust that he feels researchers need to understand:

  1. Distrust of the messengers,
  2. Distrust of the process that created the message,
  3. Distrust of the message itself, and
  4. Distrust of the solutions.

Hammering people with more data, he said, has no effect on any of these issues. Instead, Hoffman recommends finding “climate brokers,” messengers that specific audiences find trustworthy; invoking scientific consensus; speaking a “language” appropriate to one’s audience and reminding people of our shared values; and moving beyond cataclysmic scenarios to focus on American ingenuity and competitiveness. Using analogies, emotionality, storytelling, trusted authorities relevant in the worldview of one’s audience, and a focus on the positive can all be effective, he suggested.

Academics have a responsibility to step in and help people differentiate bogus information from real science, Hoffman said. His hope for the future comes from young scientists. At the University of Michigan, for example, graduate students created courses to help them learn to be more effective communicators. RELATE, a communications training and community engagement program, was founded by students in 2013 and now has university support, he said. Further, the University of Michigan has pledged to go “carbon neutral.”

Martin Luther King did not say, “I have a nightmare,” Hoffman pointed out, but rather, “I have a dream.” Hoffman’s dream? “I think we will come to a consensus on climate change.”

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