Yale’s School of Law’s Cultural Cognition Project is a research project, carried out by a number of scholars from a variety of disciplines, with the aim of uncovering the ways in which cultural values determine for individuals what counts as fact.
An instance of this is their research into the phenomenon of climate change denial. In a study entitled- ‘The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of—and Progress in—the American Culture War of Fact’- they make a case for the thesis that specific societal value orientations contribute to the denial of climate change claims.
Individuals who deny climate change are broken down into one of two psychological profiles, those who subscribe to either a hierarchical worldview or an individualist worldview. Both have their own views on how society should be organised; the former “believe that rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed differentially and on the basis of clearly defined and stable social characteristics (e.g., gender, wealth, lineage, ethnicity).” The individualistic worldview advocates the notion that the individual is the condition of their own flourishing and that this should not be delimited by external interference.
Insofar as state policy regarding the curbing of conduct which endangers the climate is not conducive to the private enterprise spirit of the individualist, this group predominantly denies climate change. Hierarchs likewise tend to dismiss claims which suggest that climate change is a real and threatening risk. The experiment attempts to confirm that such denial is a consequence of the social values they hold.
The Hierarchs and Individualists are mixed into one group before being divided proportionally. They are given a document authoritatively delineating how climate change is a consequence of human conduct. Both groups are given the same document. However, one group’s document follows a proposal advocating anti-pollution regulation. The other group’s document follows a proposal for increased nuclear power investment.
Following their consideration of the documents, the group given the anti-pollution document insisted on their denial of climate change whereas the group given the nuclear investment document actually accepted the reality of human-induced climate change.
The researchers concluded from this that it was the threat to the way in which the participants believed society ought to operate which resulted in one group’s denying certain facts which the other group, unthreatened, proved willing to accept. What count as facts, the researchers concluded, is inextricably linked to the values individuals hold regarding how society should be organised.
Shedding light on the psychology of climate change denial, the experiments result is alarming, especially when we consider real-life instances of climate change denial. There is a contradiction between accepting human-induced and threatening climate change, and a celebration of practices which further increase this threat; and this is something we need to be mindful of, as political commentator George Monbiot has eloquently illustrated.
In his book ‘How Did We Get Into This Mess?’ Monbiot draws attention to the 2015 UK government’s acknowledgement of the fact that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to the threat of climate change with their subsequently contradictory investments in fossil fuel production. Just like the Individualist and Hierarch, one can accept the reality of climate change and, at the same time, invest in fossil fuels, which increase the threat of climate change. Politicians, of course, proceed with caution. As Monbiot points out, they, therefore, propose policies that advocate constraints on the use of fossil fuels. However, the policy seems to amount to no more than how he characterised it as early as 2007: “extract every last drop of fossil fuel and then pray to God that no one uses it.” Of course, we must not let their pretensions to constrain fossil fuel use deter us from understanding that they are nevertheless extracting those fossil fuels and thereby ensuring their continued consumption.
As we can see, the contradiction illustrated by the Yale researchers has a troubling political reality. Their research takes on an important significance for those wishing to combat activities which exacerbate the threat of climate change.
Individuals who celebrate further investment in projects which exacerbate the threat of climate change occupy a seemingly impenetrable position. One the one hand, they have the luxury of denying the facts of climate change, resulting in the self-warranting of their continued and endangering practices; on the other hand, they can acquiesce with indifference, the consequences of climate change.
What one can gain from Yale’s School of Law’s Cultural Cognition analysis is a more sophisticated understanding of what the critic of environmentally unfriendly practices actually contests. What is at issue is not the facts of climate change, rather a self-serving culture for which the legitimacy of facts are actually of little importance.