This is nothing new to most of you—climate science deniers’ talking points seem to be in our face all the time and giving the “debate” any more airtime seems counterproductive. But maybe there’s something we can learn from the messages and frames (and messengers) that are working for the science deniers in order to better hone climate policy champions’ communications—especially those that tap into particularly American values like “personal freedom.”

Andrew Hoffman, the Holcim (US) professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, studied the core values or worldviews that define the science denial position on climate. He points out that “climate change has been enmeshed in the culture wars where beliefs in science often align with beliefs on abortion, gun control, health care, evolution, or other issues that fall along the contemporary political divide.”

To better understand this “distinctly American phenomenon,” he studied the way climate science deniers have consistently framed the issue. He’s boiled it down to three themes:

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    1. Why do you hate freedom? For science deniers, “climate change is inextricably tied to a belief that climate science and policy are a covert way for liberal environmentalists and the government to diminish citizens’ personal freedom.”
    2. Job killers. “A second prominent theme is a strong faith in the free market, an overriding fear that climate legislation will hinder economic progress, and a suspicion that green jobs and renewable energy are ploys to engineer the market.”
    3. Pointy-headed scientists. “The most intriguing theme is strong distrust of the scientific peer-review process and of scientists themselves: “Peer review” turns into “pal review,” and establishment scientist-editors only publish work by those whose scientific research findings agree with their own. Scientists themselves are seen as intellectual elites, studying issues that are beyond the reach of the ordinary person’s scrutiny.”

    Human caused climate change “has not yet achieved a social consensus—one that emerges from accepted values and beliefs,” Hoffman writes. Hoffman says it’s time to change up the way we’re engaging in this conversation. The focus “must move away from positions (climate change is or is not happening) and toward the underlying interests and values at play.”

    Nothing terribly new there either. (One wonders: Has he been listening to the climate policy champions?)

    But Hoffman does give some examples of what he means:

    For example, when US Energy Secretary Steven Chu refers to advances in renewable-energy technology in China as America’s “Sputnik moment,” he is framing climate change as a common threat to economic competitiveness.

    When Pope Benedict links the threat of climate change with threats to life and dignity, he is painting it as an issue of religious morality.

    When the Military Advisory Board, a group of retired military officers, refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” it is using a national-security frame.

    And when the Pew Center refers to climate change as an issue of risk management, it is promoting climate insurance just as homeowners buy fire insurance.

    Of course, climate policy champions have been framing the issue in terms of these (and other core, shared) values forever—from Sputnik to morality to national security. The big takeaway here is perhaps more about messenger than message.

    As we’ve pointed out before people are more likely to listen if the message comes from someone within their own culture. We’d do well to recruit more high-profile and, better yet, surprising national and global leaders to weigh in, more often and more emphatically. (So, why not swap Pew Center for Munich Re—one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies—which has clearly stated the need for insurance protection against climate impacts?)

    What’s also particularly instructive here, to me at least, is not simply a recommendation to tap into shared values, but a look at which values.

    Clearly, for one, there’s still lots of work to be done in an ongoing effort to break an entrenched cultural/media/political default to a backwards, oversimplified, and counterproductive “jobs/economy vs. the environment” frame.

    It also seems worthwhile to consider the role that the singularly American value that Hoffman identifies, that of personal freedom, plays in shaping a cultural and political landscape where climate policy is talked about and evaluated. It’s a value that seems to get less attention among us Climate Nerds.

    But freedom plays a big role when we’re talking about how we actually move around (cars and transportation and gas prices—some of the very central symbols of American “freedom,” conjuring the “open road” and a whole American psychology of cars as fundamental markers of status and identity) and how we define community or quality of life—not to mention peoples’ notions about the role of government.

    I don’t have all the answers here, of course, but I do think that many of the “best practices” for climate communications actually still apply, perhaps with some slight strategic shifts in emphasis to address the idea of individualism and freedom. For example, an emphasis on local, community benefits of a clean energy economy—benefits which actually expand our freedom to move around and do what we like to do rather than seeing our families and community businesses shackled to the fossil fuel rollercoaster, and pointing to solutions that give us more rather than fewer transportation options, swap time doing what we want to be doing for time wasted sitting in traffic, etc.

    David Roberts gives us a lot of fodder for this line of messaging in his excellent series on Great Places—a focus on quality of life, health, values (pride, community, security, stability, and freedom) as well as identity tied to place.