To Achieve Climate Sustainability, Facts Must Overcome Values
By: Nick Santangelo
The number is 97. According to NASA, at least 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that the upward trend of climate warming over the past century was likely caused by human activities. It’s troubling, then, that a 2016 Yale study found only 69 percent of U.S. adults share that opinion. Why do so many doubt the science, and what can be done to win them over?
The pursuit of those answers was a hot topic when the College of Liberal Arts hosted its Sustainability Symposium in Morgan Hall on March 22 and 23. Rutgers University Climate and Society Assistant Professor Rachael Shwon identified a clash of facts and values at the heart of the issue. Values are notoriously difficult to change without a major event that hits close to someone’s heart. This is bad news for anyone seeking to mitigate climate change, since its effects are gradual and difficult for many people to link to their daily lives in the immediate future.
“Values are durable, long-standing beliefs about big-picture guiding principles of what we prefer,” explained Dr. Shwon in her presentation.
A litany of studies have found a correlation between holding certain values and believing that mankind is responsible for climate change. For instance, a 2015 Cornell University study showed those who rate compassion and fairness as their most important values are likely to believe in human-influenced climate change. Meanwhile, those who rate in-group loyalty, authority and purity as more important values are less likely to believe man is responsible for global warming.
Thanks to increased globalization and access to massive, immediate information on the internet, it’s very much possible to find facts that could change values. Gilma Mantila, an assistant professor at Colombia’s Universidad Javeriana, said during the symposium that increased connectivity should allow for an incredible exchange of information.
“In this global world, we have more chances to interact with more people in more places and all the social, economic and environmental changes we’re affecting have a final path: the health of the population,” said Dr. Mantila.
The problem is few people are particularly interested in altering their values. They don’t seek out new facts that could potentially change their thinking. Instead, many of us live in “bubbles,” primarily discovering information that only reasserts our previously held beliefs.
“People are not exposed to information on environmental issues randomly,” said Dr. Shwon. “There are documented differences in the content of information provided across different media sources. People seek information from sources that align with their value orientations.”
Continuing, she noted that society avoids conversations about our conflicting values and instead argues about conflicting facts. That means facts are no longer being established by evidence and consensus as they should be. This results in a failure to discuss the necessary tradeoffs that must be made to our daily wellbeing in order to ensure long-term ecological wellbeing. The solution, Dr. Shwon thinks, is refocusing education on “how we know what we know” and having social scientists research how values influence environmental decision-making.
College of Liberal Arts Geography and Urban Studies Assistant Professor Victor Hugo Gutierrez-Velez also sees a need for social scientists to get involved and work across disciplines with other scientists. Temple University has the ability to be a major player in this regard, but Dr. Gutierrez-Velez stressed that people have to understand that while science is useful, it is biased.
“In order to be effective at solving the present challenges of society, we need to be open to other forms of knowledge,” he said in response to an audience question about the role of emerging research. “I think Temple is very well-positioned to do this because we have a very strong mix of scientists and social scientists, and I think that can make a very big contribution to sustainability.”
At the end of the day, however, those research findings will have to do more than show the big picture if they’re to change people’s values and forward the cause of climate change mitigation. A common theme throughout the symposium was that people need to be shown how climate change will negatively impact their lives and how limiting it will have a positive effect on them. Dr. Mantilla sees public health and well-being as one path toward making these issues relatable. She views her work educating tomorrow’s public health specialists as an opportunity to make headway here.
“As leaders responsible for educating the health professionals of tomorrow, we are keenly aware of our obligation to ensure that they are fully prepared to address all health risks,” she said, “including those resulting from the impacts of climate variability and change.”
It’s a great starting point, but the scientific facts have to eventually reach and resonate with the populations those public health professionals treat. College of Liberal Arts Geography and Urban Studies Associate Professor Kevin Henry thinks just getting people to go see health professionals is part of the challenge. “How can we make healthcare and wellbeing activities more routine?” he mused. “Going to the doctor, we’re busy, we put these things off. How can we build these activities into our home and workplace?”
Dr. Henry thinks this could be relatively low-hanging fruit. By ensuring everyone has sick days and access to public transportation, we could potentially move closer to empowering populations to consult health professionals more often. This would expose them to the facts about how the climate is affecting their lives and be the personal event needed to change beliefs and get people buying into the need to balance climate sustainability with personal wellbeing.