Is it unreasonable to believe stories that say humans are not at fault for climate change, if everyone you know agrees? (More)

In a column last Wednesday in Nature, Dan Kahan offers an interesting twist on why people do, or don’t, accept the scientific consensus on climate change. People who reject that consensus need not be ill-informed or irrational, Kahan writes:

If anything, social science suggests that citizens are culturally polarized because they are, in fact, too rational – at filtering out information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.

For members of the public, being right or wrong about climate change science will have no impact. Nothing they do as individual consumers or as individual voters will meaningfully affect the risks posed by climate change. Yet the impact of taking a position that conflicts with their cultural group could be disastrous.

Take a barber in a rural town in South Carolina. Is it a good idea for him to implore his customers to sign a petition urging Congress to take action on climate change? No. If he does, he will find himself out of a job, just as his former congressman, Bob Inglis, did when he himself proposed such action.

Kahan notes that one can find easily find news stories to support either accepting or rejecting the scientific consensus. As we discussed in April, our conscious reasoning most often works as a press secretary. We make intuitive judgments, sometimes based on facts but filtered through emotional and cultural values, then build stories of reason to defend those judgments. Kahan cites new research showing that those who are the most scientifically literate are also the most polarized on climate change, as they are better able to rationalize their selection or rejection of different sources, and adds:

Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is. People whose beliefs are at odds with those of the people with whom they share their basic cultural commitments risk being labelled as weird and obnoxious in the eyes of those on whom they depend for social and financial support.

So, if the cost of having a view of climate change that does not conform with the scientific consensus is zero, and the cost of having a view that is at odds with members of one’s cultural community can be high, what is a rational person to do? In that situation, it is perfectly sensible for individuals to be guided by modes of reasoning that connect their beliefs to ones that predominate in their group. Even people of modest scientific literacy will pick up relevant cues. Those who know more and who can reason more analytically will do a still better job, even if their group is wrong on the science.

Today in The Guardian, Andrew Brown takes that a step further, arguing that building and sustaining effective action on climate change will require a new moral worldview:

Underlying all this confusion is the problem that we don’t have a way of ranking rationalities, so that the word means something more to a moral agent than it does to an economist. There may be ways of fixing that and averting catastrophic global warming that don’t make use of religious resources, but I can’t think of any.

It’s important to this argument to understand that religious resources need not be theistic. All they need do is make manifest a higher rationality than self-interest.[…]

What religious thought – and ritual – can supply is the two things absent from normative consumer liberalism. The first is a belief that the choice between ends is not arbitrary or wholly personal: that there are moral facts of the matter; that saving as much of humanity as possible is an obligation on all of us, and that this is actually true, and not just a matter of preference.

The second is the kind of conformism, reinforced by all kinds of social ritual, large and small, which will enforce the social discipline needed to carry societies through some pretty ghastly changes. Let’s face it, any adjustment to an ecologically sustainable standard of living is going to be a lot nastier than anything Greece is going through now. It will need considerable determination and solidarity.

This poses an interesting counterpoint. Conservatives argue, again and again, that we’re “saddle our children and grandchildren with debt.” Oh sure, it would be nice to ensure future Americans have the same Social Security and Medicare benefits that today’s seniors have, to extend health care access for all, to upgrade our crumbling infrastructure, etc. Alas, we just can’t afford it … and it would be immoral to make our children and grandchildren pay off our bills.

Yet what about saddling those children and grandchildren with an increasingly inhospitable climate? Don’t worry about that, the conservatives argue. We’re not causing the problem, or if we are it won’t be that bad, and if it is they’ll invent a technological miracle fix.

The difference between these two arguments is less moral or factual than financial. Billionaires and big corporations have a lot to gain by spreading stories about how we just can’t afford to protect hard-working American families, and stories about how climate change, if it happens, won’t be a big deal. Changing our moral consensus on those issues will require pushing back against those well-funded messages, one conversation at a time. That’s an uphill slog … but progressive change almost always as been.

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Happy Tuesday!