How climate change became political
Whatever your perspective on climate change, it has likely been shaped by political culture and the media. For some, however, the subject has become so controversial that even the words “climate change” are controversial.
A study by the Yale US Climate Change Communication Program found that switching to the term “extreme weather” in an attempt to instill support for climate policy was more effective at attracting American conservatives – for those of “climate change.” “Has become an uploaded term.
This is just one example of how cultural attitudes, driven from political philosophies to religious beliefs and even language, influence the ability of countries and policymakers to address climate change.
“In the political culture war, the climate is one of the many dividing points that are reinforced and exploited by certain actors,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program.
“It’s complex,” adds Alison Anderson, professor of sociology at the University of Plymouth. “Ideology and personal values are decisive, demographic factors such as age and gender play a role – but above all the political climate and the tone of the media debate play an important role.”
Eco mission: Pope Francis meets climate activist Greta Thunberg © NurPhoto via Getty Images
According to Andrew Hoffman, professor of sustainable entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, climate change is a highly controversial cultural issue that tends to be viewed as part of a left agenda. “As soon as that happens, there are cultural projections and sub-texts that influence people’s perception.”
This has not always been the case. For years, climate change has been viewed through a purely ecological lens. “It was a natural environment phenomenon that would affect species and that doesn’t resonate with everyone,” says Sarah Burch, associate professor at the University of Waterloo who studies community responses to climate change.
With the adoption of the Kyoto treaty on climate change, attitudes have changed, says Hoffman. “What was previously a scientific question became in 1997 [one] that affected powerful political and economic interests and the split began, ”he explains.
This sparked a wave of corporate and individual activity in sectors such as oil, gas and coal, particularly in the US, to avoid restrictions on fossil fuel consumption.
They tried to shape cultural attitudes by investing in universities and think tanks and making political campaign donations. “They are really good at what they do and how sophisticated and sophisticated their influencing tools have become,” says Leiserowitz.
What used to be a scientific topic became [one] that affected powerful political and economic interests
And whether generated by self-interest or not, social media has charged the gap in attitudes towards climate change. “People are moving into factions and social media has allowed us to become very tribal,” says Hoffman.
Today, views on climate change are often balanced with political loyalties. For example, last year the Pew Research Center found that while 72 percent of Democrats and Democratic-minded Americans say human activities are driving climate change, only 22 percent of Republicans and Republican-minded supporters agreed.
Leiserowitz points to four countries – three of them former British colonies – where the gaps on climate change are most extreme: the US, Canada, Australia and, to a lesser extent, the UK. “One of the things they have in common is English,” he notes. “That makes it super easy to transfer ideas.” In this case, however, the split goes beyond party politics and is rooted in opposing worldviews: egalitarianism and radical individualism.
For those who advocate egalitarianism, climate change is a major threat “because of the effects it has not only on them but on poor people around the world and on ecosystems”. They are therefore likely to support collective action. “But for radical individualists, value above all others is individual freedom and autonomy,” he explains. “People with this worldview are naturally hostile to the issue of climate change.”
Religion also plays a vital role in shaping opinion, which is why the September Declaration by Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the urgency of environmental sustainability was considered significant.
In the fight against climate change, cultural attitudes generally receive less attention than political, business strategy and potential technological corrections. “We’re looking at the technical elements to get us out of here,” says Burch. “But that is the elephant in the room” [the response to climate change] is a deeply human phenomenon and the problems and solutions are embedded in our policies and behavior. “