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September 2019: How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate (Hoffman)

posted Oct 7, 2019, 1:37 PM by East Bay Smith Club
Our September meeting was held on Wednesday, the 11th of September.   We had
originally been scheduled for the following day, however, we changed dates
in order to avoid conflict with a Democratic candidates debate.   Most
people preferred the new night, and we had ten members in attendance.  

Perhaps as a result of the debate the following day, our discussion shifted
over to politics and to our hopes and worries about the 2020 presidential
campaign.  However, we did a pretty good job of talking about the book as
well.  Fortunately, our September selection set the stage for our inevitable
political tangents nicely.  It was this year’s Smith Reads book:  Andrew J
Hoffman’s How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate.

Hoffman begins his book with an insightful critique of academia and its
fixation on specialization and on promotion through peer review.  This focus
may be effective in generating vast quantities of specialized knowledge;
however, it often makes it difficult for this knowledge to be disseminated
and explained to the general public.  In the case of climate change
research, this disconnect between the scientific community and the average
citizen may have troubling consequences indeed.   Hoffman has a background
in environmental engineering.  However, his current work focuses on
understanding environmental issues with the resources of sociology,
psychology and the other social sciences.  In this book, he tries to
identify the reasons why people accept or reject the science of climate
change.  His goal is to develop insights that might help to move the public
discourse forward.   

In the first chapter of the book, Hoffman discusses how the climate change
debate became a cultural debate, and how our beliefs are shaped by the
various cognitive filters that we all use to understand the world.
Attitudes towards climate change tend to be strongly influenced by political
affiliation and thus map onto the divides that we are all aware of in
American political life.  We may not have much chance of changing the minds
of the most dismissive climate change deniers.  However, Hoffman believes we
can convince some of the more cautious, disengaged and doubtful members of
our society to take climate change more seriously.  To show how, Hoffman
explains how we make sense of complex scientific information, discusses
which organized movements are denying climate change, explains how cultural
change happens, and reviews examples of large scale social changes that have
occurred in the past.  He ends with some specific strategies for the current
moment, such as advising climate change activists to describe the danger of
climate change, and the benefits of addressing it, with “frames,” such as
“national security, health and economic competitiveness,” that appeal to the
individuals they are trying to persuade.  

After reviewing some facts that illustrate how pressing the issue of
climate change is, Hoffman concludes by noting that the mere statement of
these facts is not going to be enough to spur society into action.  “When
engaging the debate,” he writes, “we must think not only of the science of
climate change, but also about the sociopolitical processes and tactics
necessary to get people to hear it.” 

Though the book is quite short, some of our members found they had to force
themselves to finish it.  Most of us felt that it covered ground that we had
been over before.  Hoffman’s analysis of the American cultural divide echoed
a lot of what we read about in Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in Their Own
Land.  Hoffman’s goal of applying the social sciences to the climate change
debate seemed admirable indeed, but many of his observations and insights
struck us as obvious and not particularly innovative.  Still, each of us
identified some part of the book that we found useful and/or
thought-provoking.  I think we all understood why Smith choose this as the
book that all incoming first-year students would be asked to read and
discuss.   It is probably helpful to start one’s undergraduate education
with an exploration of the importance of open-mindedness and empathy and
with a reminder of the essential role of effective communication in efforts
to change the world for the better.   Perhaps our group has become a little
too cynical to embrace the book fully.  However, it did spark a fascinating
evening of political discussion, one which highlighted our anxiety and
anger, but which was also not devoid of hope.

Fortunately, our next book is taking us far away from the troubles of our
current political crisis.  Instead of lamenting the conflict between the
Democrats and the Republicans, we turn back to an ancient, but perhaps
equally intractable, conflict: the struggle between the gods of Olympus and
the Titans.