What, you might well ask, could climate change, slavery and tobacco possibly have in common? Quite a bit, it appears. The article below, courtesy of The Daily Climate, reports on a new study that compares current attitudes on climate change to the slow transformation of societal views on smoking bans and the abolition of slavery.
Knowing something scientifically is generally fairly straightforward: establish the strongest set of probabilities supported by the preponderance of evidence, then refine, refine and refine some more. Translating that knowledge into shared cultural beliefs is, it turns out, an altogether more subtle and elusive process.
This raises some interesting points, including the intriguing notion that “society fails to define or acknowledge a problem until it has the beginnings of a solution”. The upside of this insight is that, once feasible, large-scale solutions begin to emerge, public opinion can ‘flip’ quite dramatically.
But, as regularly reported here and elsewhere, the massive investment by vested interests in the carbon intensive status quo, and their bloody-minded determination to buy, bully and befuddle public and political opinion in favour of inaction means this transformation is indeed likely to be “sloppy, disruptive and prolonged”.
Maybe what we have here isn’t just a failure to communicate.
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 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.
Abolitionism gained traction with the advent of machinery and fossil fuels as an alternative to human toil. The Montreal Protocol, the international treaty protecting the Earth’s thin ozone layer, was triggered after DuPont developed an alternative to ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.
“If we developed feasible and scalable renewable energy tomorrow, public opinion on climate would shift fairly quickly,” Hoffman said.
But while cultural shifts can happen suddenly, the debate over climate is likely to be sloppy, disruptive and prolonged, Hoffman acknowledged.
“People expect a shift overnight,” he said. “That’s not going to happen when the solution challenges the very foundations of our fossil-fuel-based society.”