Why It's So Hard to Change Public Attitudes: The Example of Global Warming


It is looking like we will not get a new international agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the Copenhagen Conference this December. After several unproductive preparatory meetings among government officials, the news media now report that Copenhagen is unlikely to result in more than a bland statement saying world leaders will continue working toward a new agreement. This is a sharp decline in expectations from a year ago, when Copenhagen was seen as the venue where a new international accord would be adopted to replace the Kyoto Protocol set to expire in 2012.

After initial optimism about the Obama Administration’s willingness to take a lead in framing a new climate agreement, the U.S. is now being accused of playing a spoiler role. The U.S. has ended negotiations over specific emissions targets by insisting that countries be given the freedom to decide their own measures for reducing greenhouse gases. The Obama Administration has cynically appealed to the principle of “national sovereignty” to redirect global negotiations away from a new set of binding limits on carbon emissions. “I feel like the Americans have lost the plot a little bit,” the European Commission president was dryly quoted as saying in the September 22 Financial Times.

A country’s national sovereignty is, of course, under much greater threat from climate change than it is from a binding international agreement on preventing global warming. But nationalism serves as a convenient emotional ‘hot button’ that special interests can use to derail serious climate legislation. Opponents of carbon taxes and environmental regulations know very well that voluntary efforts designed by individual governments will not stop global warming. Permitting individual nations to set their own standards invariably results in an international ‘race to the bottom,’ in which competing countries consistently ‘water down’ the costly measures that actually promote alternative energy and conservation.

Why the Public Does Not Support Climate Legislation

Environmentalists like us are oftentimes surprised by the public’s lack of interest in climate change. Recent polls even show that public opposition to climate legislation has increased over the past several years even as the scientific evidence of global warming mounts. The evidence on climate change is now overwhelmingly clear: anything over a 2 degree-centigrade rise in temperatures (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — an event that is highly likely before the end of this century if no countermeasures are taken — will almost certainly have very costly and dangerous consequences.

Climate change skeptics are most prominent in the United States, which may help explain why the U.S. was the only major country to not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It may also explain why, since the Kyoto Protocol was first signed, the U.S. has increased its carbon emissions by about 20 percent, while European countries reduced theirs by 2 percent. But, the question remains: Why are Americans so against policies that are in their own long-term interest? An answer to that question can be found by combining both the scientific understanding of the process of global warming and some interesting ideas from the field of sociology.

Our upcoming environmental disaster is — most simply put — the result of Americans’ inability to deal with two conflicting factors: the powerful hold of our individualistic consumer culture, and the lag-time between when greenhouse gases are emitted and when they actually produce global warming (generally a 40 to 50-year-long process).

Culture Cannot Keep Up With Reality

American culture is so tightly wrapped around consumption and individualism that we refuse to grasp, much less accept, that our individual striving for larger houses, bigger automobiles, 16-oz. steaks, and frequent weekend fights to Las Vegas constitute a collective irresponsibility of earth-shattering proportions. The economist Deepak Lal (Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Development, MIT Press, 1998) argues that culture inevitably lags behind the ever-changing realities of our natural, social and economic environments, and this weakens political systems’ ability to deal with complex issues. In the case of global warming, American culture lags behind our scientific knowledge and understanding of our environment.

The momentum of culture has been thoroughly analyzed by the noted French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu. In several decades of books and articles, Bourdieu argued that an individual’s culture consists of an uncomfortable mixture of what he defines as fieldhabitus anddoxa. These three components often interact in ways that perpetuate cultural assumptions and behaviors even when reality changes — resulting, oftentimes, in people acting against their own best interests.

Bourdieu defines a ‘field’ as the social or intellectual arena within which people spend much of their active hours of the day, such as their job, their intellectual field, their profession or their social group. Young people’s field is usually their school environment, and members of the military similarly adopt military culture. In sum, the field constitutes the realities of our daily existence where we focus our efforts to advance our economic and social interests. People may simultaneously visualize themselves as part of a broad national culture while, on a daily basis, they perceive only their immediate social environment or job. People thus usually strongly embrace a narrow field’s particular culture, and that particular cultural field can dominate the other cultures that might also be influencing them.

People, Bourdieu argues, necessarily adopt a ‘habitus,’ which is a set of subjective but persistent perceptions, beliefs, and norms of behavior that enable people to function within their field or fields. Since conflicts invariably emerge between the objective reality of one’s field and the more subjective habitus that a field member embraces, individuals in turn develop a set of conceptions of reality — or beliefs — that Bourdieu calls ‘doxa.’ This doxa, or belief structure, serves to ‘explain’ the inconsistencies and gaps in understanding between the reality of the field and the subjective habitus. Doxa are essentially cultural behaviors that people view as ‘normal’ and use to judge events and their personal circumstances. According to Bourdieu, doxa serve to self-justify — and thus legitimize — the combination of a particular objective field and the subjective habitus that people rely on to manage their participation in that field.

Bourdieu argues that because the fields we occupy are shaped by both outside events and our internal habitus and doxa, we in effect create much of these fields’ reality. And, because our subjective views and assumptions change very slowly, our fields also change slowly. Even when external events shock our reality, we tend to continue operating in accordance with our familiar habitus and doxa. (Hence, the field of economics continues to teach neoliberal economics even after the financial crisis made it clear that free markets are not efficient.) Humans, accordingly, have difficulty dealing with changing circumstances. We should note that this sociological tendency is further strengthened by the physical nature of the human mind, which is hard-wired to protect the status quo and its accustomed ‘territory.’

The ‘Political Field’ and Global Warming

Our biological ability to deal with a phenomenon like global warming — where the changes are occurring so gradually — is thus exceptionally weak. The climate disruption driven by our carbon emissions is not as yet highly visible, and it should not be surprising, therefore, that Americans’ habitus of high consumption and doxa of individualism continues to shape the reality of our jobs and professions, our entertainment, and our politics. Since our culture provides few incentives to act on global warming, we vote for whichever political party best identifies itself with consumption and individualism.

As the head of climate change research at the United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office recently lamented: “I don’t understand the psychology here. It should be about evidence but it’s actually about beliefs” (quoted in “Public scepticism takes the steam out of debate,” Financial Times, 9/22/2009). This dominance of belief over scientific evidence that so concerned the U.K. climate official seems to be strongest in the U.S. Is this because our lobbyists are more active in reinforcing the doxa and habitus components of culture through advertising, misinformation and fear? Or is it because Americans already have a habitus, or a disposition, to favor beliefs over scientific reasoning? Author Thomas Frank, of What’s the Matter with Kansas? fame, suggests that the U.S. has a long cultural tradition of anti-intellectualism. Bourdieu would conclude that this anti-intellectual habitus, perhaps based on a strong doxa of fundamentalist religious orthodoxy, makes it difficult for American political culture to generate sound environmental policies.

For people to change their beliefs and begin to understand the dismal consequences of global warming, they would need to envision themselves as occupying a field with a habitus that encourages scientific thought and values the experience of understanding complex scientific information.

The world may have to wait a long time before America’s culture finally catches up with the reality of global warming. Add to this equation the strength of special interest lobbyists the world over determined to impede a new climate accord, and it is clear that it is going to be very difficult to stop the coming train wreck.

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