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Week of March 28, 2011


Reframing climate change: It’s as much cultural as scientific

While debate on climate change often strikes a caustic tone, the real impediment to meaningful dialogue is that the two sides often talk past each other in what amounts to a “logic schism,” a U-M researcher says.

“In a logic schism, a contest emerges in which opposing sides are debating different issues, seeking only information that supports their position and disconfirms their opponents’ arguments,” says Andy Hoffman, the Holcim (U.S.) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and School of Natural Resources and Environment. “Each side views the other with suspicion, even demonizing the other, leading to a strong resistance to any form of engagement, much less negotiation and concession.”

In a new study in this month’s issue of the journal Organization & Environment, Hoffman provides a descriptive analysis of the cultural and social landscape of the climate change debate in the United States, examining the presence of ideological and cultural influences on both the definition of the problem and consideration of solutions.

“The goal is to uncover whether competing logics within the broader climate debate represent a logic schism and, if so, whether that schism has reached such a point that it cannot be resolved,” says Hoffman, associate director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.

Hoffman treats the climate change debate as a series of competing movements engaging in “framing battles” over the interpretation of the problem and the necessity and nature of solutions. These frames include diagnostic (defining problems and assigning blame), prognostic (focusing on solutions) and motivational (explaining the need to act) collective action.

These movements, he says, possess competing institutional logics regarding climate change — what Hoffman calls the “climate change convinced” and “climate change skeptical” logics. He is careful to distinguish between the extreme positions of climate change deniers and believers, who are fairly closed to debate and engagement, with the more central positions of the convinced and skeptical climate change populations.

In his study, Hoffman analyzed about 800 U.S. newspaper editorials on climate change from September 2007 to September 2009, and used qualitative data gathered at the Fourth International Conference on Climate Change in May 2010 — the largest annual climate change denier conference in the world.

With regard to newspaper editorials, he found that 73 percent were written by those convinced that climate change exists. Nearly half of these “convinced” articles were written by journalists and most were presented as op-eds. Most “skeptical” articles were submitted by citizens as letters to the editor.

Nearly 90 percent of skeptical articles referenced science as an issue, suggesting that the definition of climate change is the crux of the debate. In other words, for skeptics, there is no problem or any uncertainty that a problem exists, Hoffman says.

“Similar to the terminology of the climate denier movement, nearly 25 percent of all skeptical articles refer to climate change proponents as alarmists,” he says. “More specifically, the dominant political target of these arguments is Al Gore, who is blamed by skeptical authors for fabricating the problem of climate change for ideological and personal gain.”

In contrast, “climate change convinced” articles invoked prognostic frames (finding solutions) in referencing political ideology, placing emphasis on what type of federal climate legislation should be passed.

“Even when convinced authors do not like the form that climate legislation or climate action may take politically, they are generally more supportive of doing something about it through legislation or regulation,” Hoffman says.

In the end, individuals with credibility on both sides of the debate are necessary to act as “climate brokers” to open communication channels and to bridge the gap between those convinced that climate change exists and those who are skeptical, Hoffman says.



Cat Meyer, administrative assistant senior, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, on her role at work: “I love puzzles, and that’s what’s so charming about the work I do; it’s always changing. It’s like doing a sudoku every day.”


J. Adrian Wylie’s exhibit Moments in Medicine: Silver Gelatin Portraits, features black and white portraits of medical students, residents or fellows, Taubman Health Center North Lobby, Floor 1, through April 3.

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