Culture, Cognition, and Climate

Climate change is not just the mother of all market failures, it is a deep cognitive puzzle. Despite the scientific consensus, Americans remain divided over the existence of climate change and its link to human activity. Social science offers competing explanations for this phenomenon. One view says people lack good information. Another view claims people get sidetracked by “cognitive biases.” But a more recent and more persuasive view posits that a person’s attitude about climate change is not a risk assessment at all, but rather an expression of cultural values. This view, associated with the theory of “cultural cognition,” suggests that the public will turn its attention to climate change only when political leaders and judges are able to communicate about climate in ways that resonate with an audience’s deeply held values. This Article describes in detail how expressive techniques from Cultural Cognition Theory (“CCT”) can be applied to policy making and judicial decisions where climate is concerned. While this can be done in both the contexts of mitigation and adaptation, the results will not be equal. This is because CCT prescriptions work best where the policy benefits are local in scale, tangible, and accessible— characteristics that cut in favor of adaptation goals. Thus, CCT should be expected to produce more impressive results when applied to adaptation efforts, making our attention to that side of the equation all the more important. Put bluntly, we need good adaptation policies not just to manage the climate change we can’t avoid; we need them because they are the cognitive gateway for addressing climate change at all.

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