BY JOHN WOOD
Climate change, also known as global warming, is one of the most contentious of today’s debates. So it’s not surprising that Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. James Inhofe wrote The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, which argues that human influenced climate change is merely a hoax and ridiculous because “God’s still up there” and it is “outrageous” and arrogant for people to believe human beings are “able to change what He is doing in the climate.”
On the other hand, Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science, argues that Inhofe “politicizes and misuses the science of climate change.” Mooney says of Republicans, “Refusal to consider mainstream scientific opinion fuels an atmosphere of policy gridlock that could cost our children dearly.”
You should know that polarization in Congress and in society is as voracious today as it was more than 200 years ago and as it was in George Washington’s time, making difficult the development of consensus on how to address issues that threaten our country.
Are we doomed to constant political gridlock?
Unless we deal with what deeply divides us in the context of certainly a very complicated world, then maybe so!
A WICKED PROBLEM
Climate change is a wicked problem. Issues earn the label “wicked problem” through generating sufficient controversy that groups with disparate explanations for the causes and solutions to the problem are unable to forge consensus necessary for democracy to proactively address an issue.
Our nation has always been divided over various issues and nothing is different today, especially in the face of incredibly complex “wicked” problems, such as drugs, poverty, and climate change.
The National Research Council [NRC] in 2010 described climate change as a “change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns” over an extended period of time, whether decades or even millions of years. The NRC finds that causes, such as the Earth’s varying solar radiation, volcanic eruptions, and also plate tectonics influence climate change.
The 2010 report, called America’s Climate Choices: Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change, finds that specific human activities are also considered significant in causing climate change, also known as “global warming.”
Many scientists say that the consequences might be melting ice caps, rising water, eroding shoreline, a shift in the “bread basket” where important food crops such as wheat, corn, and soy grow, and major weather changes.
Wicked Problems thrive when people disagree about not only what is the problem itself, but also its solution.
In 2007, the Australian Public Service Commission described a “wicked problem” as one “not in the sense of evil, but rather as an issue highly resistant to resolution.” It is most problematic, or even impossible, to solve because of contradictory, incomplete, and changing conditions, which are often difficult to recognize. What’s more, due to its often complex and interdependent nature, efforts to solve an aspect of a problem may actually create even more problems.
“Climate change is an issue that presents great scientific and economic complexity, some very deep uncertainties, profound ethical issues, and even lack of agreement on what the problem is,” said Michael Toman, research manager in the World Bank’s research department.
Wicked problems, such as poverty, drugs, crime, and climate change seem to defy solutions as people struggle to define the real problem to these issues. For example, is poverty about being lazy or about a mental illness? Is climate change man made, or natural? Or, even, is climate change really happening or just a hoax?
It is differing perspectives that drive ambiguity on problems and solutions in choosing the road forward.
THE BASIS FOR OUR CONSTITUTION
The father of our Constitution, James Madison, assumed that factions – simply groups of citizens who unite with a common goal in mind – are purely natural in human nature. However, he lamented that these factions can often counter other factions, sometimes even violently, and can hurt society as a whole.
Madison says further in the Federalist Papers, No. 10, “[S]o strong is the propensity to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts”
These factions appeared quite rapidly in our country.
Just a dozen years after the Constitution was signed, President George Washington grumbled in 1798 “that you could as soon scrub the blackamoor white, as to change the principles of a professed Democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the Government of this Country.” The Democratic-Republicans, in turn, angrily accused Federalists of destroying America’s value with the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Federalists were the 1780s were roughly a version of today’s conservatives and the Democratic-Republicans were the liberals.
Today, conservatives and liberals are still divided, but on very different issues – abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and climate change, to name a few.
FACTIONS IN OUR DNA
In their book Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, John Hibbing, Kevin Smith and John Alford find that “pretending that some middle-ground nirvana can be reached if only we listen to the other side is counterproductive and a source of endless frustration.” They explain that both sides of the spectrum see the world very differently, arguing that such differences are based on differences in our DNA.
For example, on one hand, conservatives tend toward the status quo and tradition, back robust penalties on rule breakers and distrust outsiders. On the other hand, liberals favor experimentation, are open-minded about change, curious of outsiders and are more patient of rule breakers. Hibbing and Co. say these differences are not just partisan bickering over ObamaCare, abortion, climate change, or any other of today’s issues. Instead, “they are bedrock social differences that have existed at least since Athens and Sparta.”
And these bedrock differences, originating in our DNA, are manifested in the climate change controversy preventing the sort of consensus necessary to address societal problems.
For example, the World Bank’s Toman says, “Economists will generally think about the trade-offs involved. Ecologists will talk about the idea that we’re driving towards the edge of a cliff. I think both views are right. The question is, how you reconcile these two–if you can?”
Two different views, no less legitimate, that contribute to polarization on the issue of climate change.
When people do not agree, it is an indication of motivated reasoning. Essentially, rather than searching for information on both sides of an issue that may confirm or disconfirm their specific beliefs, people first seek information they believe. Drew Westen and his colleagues in a 2006 paper Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning found motivated reasoning is “a form of implicit emotion regulation in which the brain converges on judgments that minimize negative and maximize positive affect states associated with threat to or attainment of motives.” Motivated reasoning is deeply structured in our brains and often helps us get what we want, but also deeply divides us.
Madison was intuitively right: we are divided by factions. But it seems scientists are finding that such divisions originate deep in our brains. Lest we succumb to our fear that political consensus is impossible, let us remember that Madison and other framers of the Constitution provided means for us to overcome our natural DNA-laden tendency toward factions.
The opinion of scientists in the scientific community is that the Earth’s climate system is certainly warming, according to the 2010 NRC report. The report notes that there is a 95% probability that we, humans, are actually causing most of this warming through our activities that intensify concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through mainly burning fossil fuel, aerosols, and deforestation.
Scientific papers also are at a consensus on climate change. In 2013, for example, a peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Research Letters reviewed nearly 12,000 scientific journal abstracts citing either “global climate change” or “global warming.” The authors of the paper found that more than 4,000 of this group of papers directly examined the causes of climate change, and of these 4,000 papers, more than 97% validated that climate change is real.
No national or international scientific body had rejected the human-induced effects on climate change stance until 2007, but the American Association of Petroleum Geologists [AAPG] revised their statement on climate change as non-committal and promoting a need for more research instead of acting on it now. This change in AAPGs stance certainly reflects the lack of consensus among citizens.
NO POPULAR CONSENSUS
In a 2003 peer-reviewed study called the media’s social construction of environmental issues: focus on global warming – a comparative study, the authors found that the popular media coverage in the U.S. appeared different from other countries, where reporting is more in line with the scientific community.
For example, some journalists point to the fact that climate change denial is often being propagated, for the most part in the U.S. by business-centered organizations employing tactics worked out previously by the U.S. tobacco lobby, according to an 2007 ABC News report by Clayton Sandell called “Report: Big Money Confusing Public on Global Warming.”
Communication scholar Craig Trumbo found that stories on climate change in the 1980s were heavily reliant on scientific sources, but over time, economists and politicians seemed to have taken over as the dominant sources of news stories. By the early 1990s there was a growing concern over the costs associated with regulations, especially in opinion pieces where climate change skeptic views thrived.
A new phenomenon called the “dueling scientists scenario” gave even more credibility to skeptics in the media. This rise of skeptics coupled with the Bush Sr. administration critiques of the science of global warming. Such critiques can create a lot of confusion and feeds on the distrust already present in the public’s mind.
Trust in our mass media is important in how the public understands the issues and how to interpret their world. When issues, such as climate change, have complex causes and effects, uncertainty in the public can stall progress on such issues. A lack of trust can also create wider legitimacy problems for governing institutions. As a result, governments struggle in mobilizing resources to deal with citizen needs due to their lack of consent.
This lack of trust has made Americans more doubtful about climate change than other nations worldwide. People’s concern over issues such as climate change corresponds with national crisis, such as 9/11, as well as economic downturns as Americans focus on national security and the economy over environmental concerns.
More than half [57%] of Americans in a 2013 Gallup poll think that climate change isn’t as bad as portrayed in the media, but a third say the media has actually downplayed the topic, and nearly a quarter saying the coverage is accurate. However, Europeans have another view: In a 2009 Eurobarometer survey, pollsters found that surveyors rate climate change as the second most important problem facing the world today. An overwhelming number [87%] of Europeans say climate change is a “serious” or “very serious” problem.
These dueling perspectives can create a fight over the direction on how to deal with climate change. But it is not just a problem – it is a “Wicked Problem.”
Madison and other framers of the Constitution gave us a means to overcome wicked problems: our political institutions. They were intentionally designed to force compromise among factions and to prevent factional strife through representatives, checks and balances, and separation of powers. Wicked problems, such as climate change, beg for institutional direction to deal with our current divisions.
Three solutions are proposed by Department of Defense Analyst Nancy Roberts: authoritative, competitive, or collaborative.
If we as a society decide to tame climate change by vesting the solution in a few hands, the reduction in decision-makers may simplify things greatly, but such experts are not likely to properly take into consideration the range of perspectives needed to tackle the problem.
This authoritative direction is certainly in the Madisonian direction: The Environmental Protection Agency is this authority that guides the U.S. in climate change matters. Its command and control philosophy may be partly why it has struggled in implementing policy.
A competitive strategy would pit opposing viewpoints against each other. This can mean market solutions. In 2007, President George W. Bush said that while he thought climate change was a natural phenomenon and not man made, he said it was inevitable so we might as well adapt and make money off it. However, the Inhofe faction in Congress challenged even the existence of climate change, stalling progress until Obama’s presidency.
Competition can also come from the marketplace of ideas. While this would force differing views to confront each other to weigh the best idea, it creates confrontation where knowledge sharing will not be as forthcoming and the best solution is likely to be silenced. This means that Congress needs to find ways to start working together again and hear all sides in this pluralistic world of ours where different viewpoints clash.
A collaborative solution is where all stakeholders are part of the dialogue, but such a process is very time consuming.
Let us hope that congressional leaders listen to the American people as a whole, instead of basically focusing on their particular core constituencies whether exclusively on the Right or the Left. Congress’ spiraling polarization Congress is clearly turning Americans off. Through stakeholder, or citizen, engagement, Congress can be forced to govern more effectively. Congress members often look for direction – but when citizens are turned off, interest groups dominate the dialogue.
By hearing all factions, their needs, desires, how they define the problem, and their proposed solutions, we can find ways forward. Citizens need facts from all sides – and they need to educate themselves on the issues. Unfortunately, most are low information voters, distracted from complex issues that seem far off.
While factions are seated deep in us, wicked problems call for greater a collaboration that institutions balance with an engaged public. While the reality of an engaged public and a collaborative Congress seems unlikely today, it is still an important goal that we need push for because citizens are the source of life in a representative democracy.
– John Wood, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Oklahoma and a frequent contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. This essay first appeared in The Observer’s March 2015 print edition.