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Informing the Climate Change Debate: Town Hall

1/10/2012 --

Jan. 20 town hall discussion brings together academics and practitioners in hopes of improving climate change discourse.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Never mind that it's an election year. The issue of climate change has been a political tinderbox for a long time.

And, in professor Andrew Hoffman's opinion, social science academics and communications practitioners have been living in separate realms, a fact that's helped contribute to the stalled public debate.

Hoffman is director of the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and a leading expert on the business implications and social dimensions of climate change. He holds a dual appointment at Ross and the University's School of Natural Resources and is the Holcim (U.S.) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise. He hopes a Jan. 20 town hall discussion, Cures for Climate Confusion: Breaking Through in Our Neighborhoods and the Nation, at Ross' Blau Auditorium, will prompt the disparate communities to start learning from each other. The event starts at 6:30 pm.

"We want to help coalesce academics, practitioners, and the best minds on the social aspects of climate change to find ways for them to cross disciplinary lines and begin to contribute to a single conversation on this empirical issue," Hoffman says.

The town hall and preceding Jan. 19 workshop are presented by the Erb Institute, the University of Michigan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The invitation-only workshop will continue Jan. 21.

Speakers and presenters for the town hall include Hoffman and:

• Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy, Union of Concerned Scientists

• Tim Mealey, co-founder and senior partner, Meridian Institute

• Bob Inglis, former Republican Congressman from South Carolina

• Steven W. Percy, retired CEO of BP America, chairman of Wavefront Technology Solutions Inc., and director of Omnova Solutions Inc.

• The Rev. Sally Bingham, president and founder, Interfaith Power and Light

Participating in the workshops are academics, pollsters, industry leaders, interest groups, and clergy.

The idea of the town hall isn't to debate whether climate change is real or not, Hoffman says. Instead, the gathering is to explore how people receive scientific information, how they process it, how they frame it, and, ultimately, how they decide to accept or reject it. The goal is to find a way to help inform the public debate by analyzing the process by which a social consensus can emerge on this scientific issue.

Hoffman's own research has shown that the public climate change debate has become more about values, ideology, and worldviews than it has been about carbon dioxide and climate models. And once the issue becomes so connected to people's deeply held values, providing more data only gets them to dig their heels in even harder.

"We need to understand the deeper sociological, psychological and anthropological aspects of this debate if we are ever going to gain buy-in," Hoffman says.

That's a fact that tends to frustrate some physical scientists.

"They often get annoyed by hearing about the social debate," Hoffman says. "To them it’s all about the 'facts.' But those in the social sciences point out that science is never politically and socially inert. The conclusions of climate scientists have real impact for people's lives. As a result, like it or not, climate change has become mired in the culture wars with sharp divisions along partisan lines. There are deep ideological reasons why people are uncomfortable when they hear about climate change. It affects their thinking about the economy, the role of the government, trust in science, and, in the end, our way of life."

Hoffman says social scientists should take a larger role in the public debate.

"I'm hopeful that the academic social scientists in the room will feel more charged to enter the messiness and nastiness of the public debate," he says. "They have so much to offer the conversation and they can refine their future research with empirical feedback. And I hope the practitioners in the room see new insights into their communications challenges by hearing from academics about how they conceptualize the issue and how past research can inform future practical action. It really comes down to how people process complex scientific information and how that informs the public and political debate that results."

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,