Many climate engagement efforts are driven by the outdated “information deficit” theory of science communication. The “deficit model” refers to the idea that public uncertainty and skepticism around climate change is caused primarily by a lack of understanding of the science (Moser and Dilling 2011; Maibach et al. 2008; O’Brien 2012). If this were correct, the obvious solution would be to increase public understanding of climate science.
However, social science research suggests that a person’s scientific literacy has little relationship with their level of concern over climate change (Kahan et al. 2012). Most people’s beliefs are formed largely by their values, community and culture (Kahan and Braman 2005). This research suggests that advocates for climate policy should focus less on increasing the public’s understanding of climate science, and more on building the culture and values that support action. As the congressman Ed Markey, a proponent of climate legislation and the US Representative for Massachusetts’s 5th congressional district, argued, “We need to win back the science, but we will – that’s the easy part. The more difficult question is whether we win back the principle that if the science is valid, public policy action is morally mandatory…” This is the crux of the problem. I heard the same point from a voice on the other side of the political spectrum, Eli Lehrer, a former Heartland Institute employee and the president of R Street, a conservative think tank: “…being right about science DOES NOT by itself make somebody's proposed public policy solutions infallible.” It is clear that without a moral mandate, science isn’t enough.
The conservative movement figured this out 40 years ago, starting with the future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s famous memo for the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971. The Powell Memo called for a long-term strategy to shape and strengthen conservative values by establishing a web of think tanks, research institutions, and media networks to promote basic principles such as free markets, self-reliance, and limited regulation. Forty years of simple messages, repeated often by trusted leaders, slowly but effectively created a cultural identity that anchored many conservative ideas in popular beliefs (Meagher 2012), including a link between anti-regulation values and anti-environmentalism (McCright and Dunlap 2010). Although climate change was a latecomer to the list of environmental issues, it fit neatly into existing storylines. In fact, the fear that climate policy could include economy-wide regulation brought the issue to the center of the culture wars (Hoffman 2012).
To take control of the conversation we need to shift the focus of climate engagement efforts. Instead of asking what the public needs to know about climate science, we should ask what the values are that support climate action. Social marketing groups, like ecoAmerica, have begun to take a values-based approach for engaging the public on climate primarily by selling it as a personally relevant issue. Many other advocates are taking a similar approach, arguing as Eric Pooley, Sr. Vice President at Environmental Defense Fund does that “as this abstract problem becomes real, public support for action rises.” While the evidence suggests that linking the local threats of extreme weather, such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes, to climate change has successfully put the issue in the public discourse, it has so far not lead to building the political support needed for significant climate action. Meanwhile, the conservative movement’s long-term effort to shape a culture has set the terms of the discourse around pending climate catastrophe. The prevailing narrative is that the dire warnings of climate scientists and advocates are just scare tactics to enable big government to impose more regulation (Klein 2008).
To move past this narrative, we need to take the values-based approach beyond social marketing, that can lead to spin wars, to democratic engagement to build new norms (Brulle 2010). As Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist, explained to me “ the motivating force for protective action is either a routine norm (e.g. purchasing fire insurance) or the emotional arousal of fear of dread. The threat of global warming is too abstract and remote to evoke dread and fear.” If we don’t have fear and dread, Kahneman suggests our only hope is to define the norm. We need to identify and elevate those values that can define a new norm focused on building a culture where actions to protect current and future generations from climate risks becomes routine. For example, research suggests that egalitarian, communitarian worldviews, whereby people value their commitment to fairness and to each other, correlate strongly with concern over climate change, and support for action to protect future generations (Leiserowitz 2006).