2010-10-30 11:19:26Climate change requires shift similar to smoking, slavery
John Cook


Interesting new study:

Climate change as a cultural and behavioral issue: Addressing barriers and implementing solutions 

For the cliff notes version, see this media article:


Take-home for me is this quote "society fails to define or acknowledge a problem until it has the beginnings of a solution". This tells me SkS probably should move beyond science into solutions.

Addressing climate change requires a shift in cultural attitudes about greenhouse gas emissions on a scale similar to the rise of abolitionism in the 19th century, according to a new study.

The conversation over climate disruption, in other words, must morph from a collection of scientific or moral facts to a set of established social facts, said University of Michigan researcher Andy Hoffman, professor of sustainable enterprise at the Ross School of Business.

Hoffman's analysis, published in the journal Organizational Dynamics, compares current cultural norms on climate science to historical societal views on smoking and slavery. 

"At core, this is a cultural question," Hoffman said via Skype from Oxford University, where he is on sabbatical. The change in attitudes about smoking in the 20th century is similar. "The issue was not just whether cigarettes cause cancer. It was whether people believed it. The second process is wholly different from the first."

For years, Hoffman noted, researchers raised the alarm over data linking smoking to lung cancer, only to see the public ignore it. Gradually awareness shifted, and now the public widely accepts the fact that smoking and second-hand smoke causes cancer, with bans on public smoking increasing and smoking rates and deaths on decline.

"They have become 'social facts,' and with that shift, action becomes possible," he said.

Abolition offers an even more telling example of the difficulties associated with changing deeply set economic structures.

In the 1700s slavery was a primary source of energy and wealth worldwide, especially for the British Empire. Abolitionism challenged that way of life and threatened to trigger economic collapse. It took more than 100 years, several uprisings and a civil war to change cultural norms and abolish slavery.

Just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, Hoffman said, few in the 21st century see a moral problem with burning fossil fuels. 

The shift in value requires a new cultural perspective, he added.

The problem, Hoffman and others note, is that often society fails to define or acknowledge a problem until it has the beginnings of a solution.


2010-10-30 11:34:23

Well, that kind of makes sense: Why worry about something that you can't do anything about?
2010-10-30 11:34:25common sense
John Cook


Yes, when I mention any of these cognitive science results to Wendy, she usually rolls her eyes and says, yes, well, that's obvious, any idiot could have told you that. I don't think she has much respect for the social sciences.

But then she's not a big fan of physical sciences either. She did do an arts degree, after all :-)