How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate
Andrew J. Hoffman



A Cultural Schism

In January 2014, the Eastern and Southern United States were plunged into extraordinarily frigid temperatures that stranded air travelers, stressed power grids, closed schools, and killed more than twenty people. In all, the lives of more than 187 million people (roughly 60% of Americans) were affected by the record-breaking cold. Meteorologists identified the culprit as the “Polar Vortex,” a large cyclone, first studied in 1853, that circles at the poles of the Earth. And much to their dismay, they watched it become yet another flash point in the rhetorical war over climate change.

On the one side, Rush Limbaugh called the Polar Vortex an invention of the liberal Left to further promote the “global warming agenda.” Fox News referred to it as the “so-called” Polar Vortex and aired multiple pundits claiming that global warming could not be true because it was so cold. Under a regular blog called “Planet Gore” (named for former vice president Al Gore), the National Review mocked “alarmists” for a tendency to believe that “there is absolutely nothing that ‘global warming’ can’t be linked to if you try hard enough.” Adding fodder for the war, a Russian research vessel became stranded in the Arctic while studying, among other things, global warming. That led Donald Trump to enter the fray, tweeting, “This very expensive global warming [expletive] has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our [Global Warming] scientists are stuck in ice.”

On the other side, a headline in Climate Central pronounced that the “Polar Vortex in U.S. May Be Example of Global Warming.” A Time magazine headline concurred that “Climate Change Might Just Be Driving the Historic Cold Snap,” adding that “melting Arctic ice is making sudden cold snaps more likely—not less.” Common Dreams went even further: “Every weather event in the modern world is attributable to climate change.” Many also directed attacks on the contrarian viewpoint. The Weather Channel, for example, ran a story, “Polar Vortex and Climate Change: Why Rush Limbaugh and Others Are Wrong.”

In the midst of this rhetorical war, scientists tried to explain that the issue over climate change is about global temperature increases, not regional weather deviations, and that one weather event does not prove or disprove the science. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, produced a two-minute video explaining the Polar Vortex, the extreme cold weather, the science of climate change, and the relation among them, concluding that “the odds are that we can expect as a result of global warming to see more of this pattern of extreme cold in the mid-latitudes and some extreme warm in the far north.”1

But these messages became just more ammunition in the rhetorical war. Headlines on the one side read, “White House Smacks Down Climate Deniers in New Video,” “White House Strikes Back at Climate Skeptics over ‘Polar Vortex,’” and “W.H. Science Director Knocks Climate Change Skeptics.” Headlines on the other side countered, “The White House Gets into the ‘Polar Vortex’ Climate Change Blame Business,” and “Global Warming Propaganda Video White House Wasting Tax Payer Money On.”

This is what stands for public debate today. Climate change has been transformed into a rhetorical contest more akin to the spectacle of a sports match, pitting one side against the other with the goal of victory through the cynical use of politics, fear, distrust, and intolerance. No wonder the public is confused. But how did an issue like climate change become so toxic, so caught up in what we call the culture wars? Why has it joined sex, religion, and politics as an issue that people try not to discuss in polite conversation? Indeed, according to a survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (Yale PCCC), two-thirds of Americans rarely if ever discuss global warming with family or friends.2 Physical scientists are mystified and frustrated by this state of affairs. But it makes sense to social scientists from disciplines like psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, ethics, and philosophy, who offer valuable tools, first for understanding why people take such polarized views on controversial issues and then for moving beyond the rancor. This book is an examination of this research work, which it presents in a cohesive narrative, one that describes the climate change debate at its core as cultural.

Climate Change As A Cultural Issue

In the pages that follow, I collect, summarize, and consider the growing body of social science research that seeks to explain why many people accept the science of climate change3 while others do not. Social scientists view the public understanding of climate change not as a lack of adequate information but as the intentional or unintentional avoidance of that information. That avoidance is rooted in our culture and psychology and can be summarized in four central points.

We all use cognitive filters. While physical scientists explore the mechanics and implications of a changing climate, the social scientist explores the cultural and cognitive reasons why people support or reject their conclusions. What social scientists find is that physical scientists do not have the final word in public debate. Instead, we interpret and validate conclusions from the scientific community by filtering their statements through our own worldviews. Through what is called motivated reasoning,4 we relate to climate change through our prior ideological preferences, personal experiences, and knowledge. We search for information and reach conclusions about highly complex and politically contested issues in a way that will lead us to find supportive evidence of our preexisting beliefs.

Our cognitive filters reflect our cultural identity. We tend to develop worldviews that are consistent with the values held by others within the groups with which we self-identify. In what Yale University law and psychology professor Dan Kahan calls cultural cognition,5 we are influenced by group values and will generally endorse the position that most directly reinforces the connections we have with others in our social groups. It is not necessarily that we reject scientific conclusions in this process, but that they are weighted and valued differently depending on how our friends, colleagues, trusted sources, or respected leaders value and frame these issues. We are the product of our surroundings (both chosen and unchosen) and gravitate towards opinions that fit with those of the people with whom we identify. As such, positions on topical and controversial issues like climate change become part of our cultural identity.

Cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning. When belief or disbelief in climate change becomes connected to our cultural identity, contrary scientific evidence can actually make us more resolute in resisting conclusions that are at variance with our cultural beliefs. Research by sociologists Aaron McCright from Michigan State University and Riley Dunlap from Oklahoma State University found that increased education and self-reported understanding of climate science corresponds with greater concern among those who already believe in climate change but less concern among those who do not.6 Kahan and colleagues have found that “members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity . . . were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.”7 In short, increased knowledge tends to strengthen our position on climate change, regardless of what that position is. This conclusion challenges the common assumption that more scientific information will help convince Americans of the need to deal with climate change. Instead, the key to engaging the debate is addressing the deeper ideological, cultural, and social filters that are triggered by this issue.

Our political economy creates inertia for change. We cannot discuss the social processes that guide our thinking without also considering the economic, political, and technological realities that are both the enactment of our values and a source of inertia to changing them. First, there is a vast physical infrastructure around fossil fuels and the lifestyle they create, which cannot be replaced easily. Second, there are strong economic and political interests that are threatened by the issue of climate change (many of them controlling the infrastructure just mentioned). As a result, they have adopted strategies to confuse and polarize the debate in order to protect their interests. Efforts to change cultural views on climate change must include changing the vast institutions and infrastructure of our economy and must be prepared to deal with resistance from those who benefit from them.

These four points form the central thesis of this book. The debate over climate change in the United States (and elsewhere) is not about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas models; it is about opposing cultural values and worldviews through which that science is seen. Those cultural values create a pattern of shared basic assumptions that tell us the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to problems and situations we face.8 They furnish us with guidelines for practical action,9 providing us with a road map, if you will, a way of understanding how the world works, how it ought to work, and how we behave within it.10 As a result, when different groups view the same science through opposing cultural lenses, they see something very different.

In the United States today, opposing cultural worldviews map onto our partisan political system: the majority of Democrats believe in climate change, the majority of Republicans do not.11 Battle lines drawn, the social debate around climate change is now devolving into a “cultural schism” in which opposing sides do not debate the same issues, seek only information that supports their position or disconfirms the other’s, and begin to demonize those who disagree with them. With time, our positions become relatively rigid and exclusive, thickening the boundaries between cultural communities. In essence, we begin to identify the members of our group (or tribe), and therefore those whom we trust, on the basis of their position on specific issues, like climate change. In his book The Honest Broker,12 Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, compares the extremes of such schisms to “abortion politics,” where those opposing abortion frame it as an issue of “life,” those favoring it, as an issue of a woman’s “choice,” and where each side invokes broader logics around religion, family, and freedom to support its views. With time, Pielke warns, “no amount of scientific information . . . can reconcile the different values.” Extreme positions dominate the conversation, the potential for discussion or resolution disintegrates, and the issue becomes intractable.


1. Holdren, J. 2014. “The Polar Vortex explained in 2 minutes.”

2. Leiserowitz, A., E. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, & G. Feinberg. 2013. How Americans communicate about global warming in April 2013. Yale University and George Mason University, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

3. Though they mean different things, both scientifically and culturally, I will use the terms climate change and global warming interchangeably because many of the research articles that I cite do the same.

4. Kunda, Z. 1990. “The case for motivated reasoning.” Psychological Bulletin 108(3): 480–98.

5. Kahan, D. 2010. “Fixing the communications failure.” Nature 463(21): 296–97.

6. McCright, A., & R. Dunlap. 2011. “The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001–2010.” Sociological Quarterly 52: 155–94.

7. Kahan, D., E. Peters, M. Wittlin, P. Slovic, L. L. Ouellette, D. Braman, & G. Mandel. 2012. “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks.” Nature Climate Change, 210: 732–35.

8. Schein, E. 1992. Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

9. McAdam, D., & W. R. Scott. 2005. Social movements and organization theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

10. Nigam, A., & W. Ocasio. 2010. “Event attention, environmental sensemaking, and change in institutional logics: An inductive analysis of the effects of public attention to Clinton’s health care reform initiative.” Organization Science 21: 823–41.

11. Borick, C., & B. Rabe. 2012. Belief in global warming on the rebound: National survey of American public opinion on climate change. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, February 28.

12. Pielke, R. 2007. The honest broker: Making sense of science in policy and politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.