Andrew Hoffman posing for headshot
Andrew Hoffman, a professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, speaks at UNL's Center for Great Plains Study conference, "Climate Change and Culture in the Great Plains" on April 1, 2021 about culture's impact on climate change perceptions.

By definition, climate change is a scientific issue backed by facts and evidence. However, as Andrew Hoffman, a professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, notes, it has become more of a divisive culture issue. 

“The problem is, these facts have become politicized,” he said. “The debate over climate change really isn’t about CO2 or climate models, it’s about conflicting worldviews and people defending values that they feel are under attack by unacceptance of climate change.” 

Hoffman was one of four keynote speakers who presented at the Climate Change and Culture in the Great Plains virtual conference, hosted by the Center for Great Plains Studies, on April 1-2.  

Margaret Jacobs, the director of the Center for Great Plains Studies, said the goal was to start a discussion on the connection between culture and climate change and how it will impact future decisions in climate policy. 

“Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming and climate change, so it’s not really about the science anymore, but how our culture and our backgrounds change our perception of understanding climate change,” Jacobs said. 

Hoffman began the discussion by presenting his work on how environmental issues emerge and evolve under the influence of social and political ideas as well as the underlying cultural values that are engaged when people debate these issues. 

In his work, he found that humans use cognitive filters that reflect their cultural identities to either reject climate change because it challenges their worldview or accept it because it confirms their worldview. 

“We will adopt beliefs that are consistent with the communities with which we identify, that are consistent with our tribe, and our tribes become our filters,” he said. “All this leads up to the idea that cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning.”

He explained that people’s cultural identities make it especially hard to have conversations about climate change in the social-political economy because people’s cultural identities create a resistance to change. 

Once a person’s mind is made up about climate change, especially someone who doesn’t believe it is real, he said providing scientific evidence can make them even more resolute in their beliefs. 

Despite the resistance, he said it’s important, if not necessary to have these conservations and reduce the distrust in climate change communication. 

Hoffman’s research found that many people don’t believe in climate change because they distrust the scientists, environmentalists and the media talking about it. 

“If Andy Hoffman, professor at the University of Michigan, says something, or the Pope says the exact same thing or Sean Hannity says the exact same thing, you will hear three different messages,” he said. “The messenger changes how we view the message.” 

To reach more audiences, Hoffman said people need to hear the facts from someone they identify with and trust from their own communities. 

He also discussed how climate change deniers do not trust the process that created the message, the solutions that come from the message, and the message itself, so a shift in how the climate change debate is framed and communicated is necessary. 

“Most people think the world is a pretty nice place. That the sun will rise, the sun will set, tomorrow will be another day. And when you present these doomsday scenarios, people typically start to shut down,” he said. “We need to move beyond the negative.”

Despite its slow start, Hoffman has seen the climate change debate beginning to shift and more and more people believe its happening and that it is caused by humans. 

According to the Pew Research Center, in the last presidential election, environmental protection and climate change surpassed jobs as a top priority issue. 

Another study Hoffman shared was the Six Americans Study done by the Yale Center that shows that the number of Americans concerned or alarmed by climate change has jumped from 43 percent in 2013 to 57 percent in 2018. 

He said this is all proof of the extent to which this issue has grown in importance and the culture and debate around climate change is changing. 

“People have dismissed climate change for years saying it’s gonna happen to somebody else, someplace else and in the future,” Hoffman said. “But now people are starting to say, ‘Oh, it’s happening to me. It’s happening to people I know. It’s happening here and it’s happening now.'”