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Breaking Through on Climate Change :: Video

2/2/2012 --

Town Hall addresses ways to inform and improve the national discussion on climate change.

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ANN ARBOR, Mich.—A civilized, reasonable discussion on climate change.

Who would have thought?

A Jan. 20 town hall in a packed Blau Auditorium was the first step in what Michigan Ross professor Andrew Hoffman and others hope is a longer journey toward informing and raising the quality of the public debate on climate change.

A crowd of scientists, religious leaders, politicians and pollsters, social scientists, students, and the public probed the disconnect between the scientific community and public opinion as skepticism on climate change is growing in the U.S.

"The reason we're here tonight is because we have a scientific consensus on the issue of climate change but we do not have a social consensus," Hoffman said. "Why is that?"

The question needs some new answers because throwing more data at doubters makes matters worse, noted Hoffman. He is the director of the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, a partnership between Michigan Ross and the University’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. Hoffman holds a joint appointment at each school and is the Holcim (U.S.) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University.

While scientists collect data and draw conclusions, "the public debate involves a much wider constituency of actors," Hoffman said. And scientific conclusions don't exist in a vacuum. They have social, economic, political, and personal implications.

One of the panelists, Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the town hall at Ross should be the starting point for a national conversation between climate scientists, social scientists, and the public.

"In my view, this is exactly the kind of conversation we need," said Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the UCS. "It's a starting point, not a finish point."

An individual's position on climate change has a lot to do with his or her politics, Hoffman pointed out. Disbelief of climate change is growing among conservatives and shrinking among liberals.

Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, is trying to change the discussion among his fellow social conservatives. Inglis initially dismissed climate change as "a bunch of nonsense."

Then two things happened. First, his son reached voting age and told him, "Dad, I'll vote for you but you have to clean up your act on the environment." Inglis also became a member of the House subcommittee on energy and the environment. He got more access to data and took a couple of trips to Antarctica.

Inglis' view of science now: "That's how God says, 'Come on, I'll show you how I did it.'"

Inglis lost the Republican primary in 2010 to a Tea Party-backed candidate. Now he's "trying to prepare the country for a conservative solution to energy and the environment." He would like to cut the income tax and end subsidies for all fuels and energy—oil, coal, nuclear, solar, and wind. That way, customers would pay the true cost of the fuels and would be better able to evaluate options.

"Make fuels accountable for all costs and fix the market distortion," he said.

Steven Percy, retired CEO of BP America and now director of Omnova Solutions Inc., said most of the business world has accepted the idea of climate change and is taking action to address it. BP started internal carbon trading, sponsored research on new energy sources, lowered corporate emissions, and lobbied politicians on the issue.

"We were accused of leaving the church, so to speak, but I think over time some of our colleagues in the industry have come around and changed their views," Percy said. "The train has left the station with the business community. It's hard to find a major corporation now that doesn't have a program around climate change. Sometimes I feel like this is old news. The corporate train is moving full steam ahead."

Why do others remain unconvinced? Hoffman says part of it is a general lack of knowledge about the scientific process and a mistrust of science in general. Human nature also plays a part. People tend to form opinions first and seek confirmation later, instead of the other way around.

"When people analyze complex issues, they want to remain consistent with who they think they are. So we form an opinion, then look for evidence. We act more like judges or lawyers finding support for a decision we've made," he said.

Religious leaders at the town hall emphasized the moral argument—that people have a responsibility to reduce pollution.

"I see climate change as the most important moral issue that faces us today," said Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest and president of Interfaith Power and Light. "This generation has a moral responsibility to do something about what humans are doing to the planet. I believe the destruction of the environment is a crime against creation. I think it's an insult to God."

Bingham sees a disconnect between what people say they believe and their behavior. She's trying to deepen the connection between ecology and faith. Though she is convinced of the science, a deep understanding of it isn't necessary to engage people. To her, it's simply about respect for your neighbor.

"A lot of people say, 'I never thought about this before,'" she says. "If you love your neighbor, you don't pollute your neighbor's air and water. We've expanded the definition of neighbor. It's not just the person next door."

Hoffman said the different perspectives are a good guide on how to present the issue to different audiences.

"You have to understand your audience and frame it in a way they will understand," he says. "I'm in a business school so I talk about it as a market shift. In a market shift, there are winners and losers."

Terry Kosdrosky

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