Road sign
Polarization of attitudes leaves little space for pursuing bipartisan approaches.

Part I in this series explores various factors leading to intense polarization on climate change, a forerunner to a March Part II focus on how to reduce that polarization.


Introduction of Jeffrey Kiehl, PhD,
as Regular Contributor

Yale Climate Connections with this posting welcomes to its group of regular contributors Jeffrey T. Kiehl, PhD, who for nearly 40 years worked as a senior climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR, in Boulder, Co. Kiehl since 2015 has lived in Santa Cruz, Ca., where he is an adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences.

Kiehl’s research at NCAR focused on issues such as effects of trace gases on the climate; the roles of clouds and aerosols on the climate system; climate feedbacks and climate sensitivity; and simulation of deep-past Earth climates. He has published more than 140 studies on climate science.

Unusual among climate scientists, Kiehl also has an advanced degree in psychology and is certified as a senior training analyst in analytical psychology. An elected Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, AMS, and of the American Geophysical Union, AGU, Kiehl in 2012 won AGU’s top prize for climate communications. He is the author of the book Facing Climate Change: An Integrated Path to the Future, published in 2016 by Columbia University Press. His first of a planned monthly series addresses factors that have led to societal polarization on climate change, with his next in the series to address how best to reduce that polarization. He addressed questions posed in writing by Yale Climate Connections.


YCC: We’re eager to explore your thoughts on how society might go about reducing the severe polarization in the country that appears to be a roadblock to meaningful action on climate change. But first, can you help us understand the foundational causes of that polarization in the first place? What goes here?

Kiehl: You’re right that understanding the various roots leading to our societal polarization over the issue of climate change, and seeing how those roots interrelate to each other, is critical to efforts to reduce that polarization.

That tremendous polarization exists in America and beyond comes as no surprise. The differing viewpoints that contribute to emotional reactions to climate change and perceptions of the issue are part and parcel of America’s divisiveness.

Social scientists for years have studied Americans’ behavior regarding a range of issues, and their research points to two general sub-cultures within America, which seem to be the two most dominant sub-cultures among others.

The first sub-culture values personal independence, rules, structural hierarchy, and those in this group tend to look for people of similar beliefs. The second of these sub-cultures values inter-connectivity, egalitarianism, and communalism, and these people are more open to diverse points of view. They support a group decision-making process, rather than an individualistic one.

People self-identifying as “individualists” seek to protect those closest to themselves: first and foremost they place individual rights above those of the group. They resonate with a statement like, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

Those self-identifying as “egalitarians” seek to protect others extending beyond their close family members; for instance, they may care for the non-human world and attempt to protect this world through group action. They resonate with a statement like, “We need to look out for everyone.”

These may seem like generalizations, but the work of social psychologists using diverse approaches supports the conclusion that group behavior tends to cluster into coherent belief systems.

YCC: So explain your reference above about how those foundational causes of polarization interrelate with each other.

Kiehl: It helps to consider these two sub-cultures in terms of “degree of connectivity,” and I do so without making value judgments but rather summarizing findings from the social sciences. Those who highly value individual rights lie at one end of this spectrum, with those valuing the rights of the many at the other end.

What explains America's intense polarization on #climate change issues? Click To Tweet

At a deeper level, one can see these two ways of relating to our surrounding human and non-human environment as being rooted in competition and cooperation, which are biological processes fundamental to life. Studies indicate that the presence of both processes, competition and cooperation, provides optimal life strategies.
Whether these biological processes are the roots of the two sub-cultures is unclear. But let’s consider the extent to which our social polarization is affected by our focus on competition and/or cooperation. An important dimension that lies between the sociological (cultural) and biological levels of connectivity are psychological processes, especially how we interact with our surrounding environment.

YCC: So can we conclude from this brief explanation that the two subgroups you describe will differ in how they process troubling information, as is often the case involving climate change?

Kiehl: Yes. Neuroscience studies have found that humans’ reactions to disturbing information is correlated with which of the two subgroups they self-identify with. For those identifying as individualists, and therefore as conservatives in the political lexicon, the part of the brain reacting most strongly to disturbing information is the amygdala. For egalitarians (liberals), it’s the anterior cingulate cortex that reacts to that same information.

The amygdala is the area of the brain associated with fight/flight/freeze reactions to perceived threats. The anterior cingulate cortex, on the other hand, is related to dealing with uncertainty and decisionmaking related to threats.

YCC: So what does this mean, and what is its relevance to reducing polarization around climate change?

Kiehl: The sociological, psychological, and biological disciplines provide strong evidence of the existence of the two dominant American sub-cultures, with their disparate value systems and their different reactions to disturbing information. Accordingly, strong polarization around so many socially relevant issues, including climate change, is not surprising.

For its part, the climate science community clearly has identified climate change as posing serious threats to life on Earth; by its very nature, climate change information often is disturbing. Findings from climate scientists are often difficult for people to face, regardless of which sub-cultural group one self-identifies with.

Psychologically – affectively and emotionally – people find it challenging to assimilate such disturbing information, let alone decide how to act in the face of that information. But the two sub-cultures react quite differently to the same or similar climate change facts.

“Individualists” will dread both disruptions to the climate system and also dread taking action on those disruptions: Acting on such an issue could well require major government intervention, at odds with the beliefs in personal rather than collective agency. In this case, denying the existence of the threat can be an effective defense against either having to shoulder the disturbing feelings of climate disruption, or violating that key value of personal independence.

YCC: So what then? What does the individualist so burdened by that information then do with it?

Kiehl: Psychology informs us that beyond simply denying the implicit threats posed by that information, another way is to project onto others the feeling of being threatened by climate change.

In highly polarized societies, “individualists” project onto the opposing “egalitarian” group their sense of threat and distrust. They would project their fears that the “collective” is dictating to them actions that would preclude their inherent freedom to choose.

YCC: And what then of the “egalitarians”? Do they too defend against the strong emotions associated with their sense of climate change reality?

Kiehl: Yes, their defense often comes in the form of defiance or a willingness to act. But along with that sense of action is their feeling of being overwhelmed. Rather than feeling fear or being threatened by climate change, they feel a deep loss and sadness, quite normal reactions to traumatic facts about the issue. If those feelings are too intense, then an emotional “shutdown” or withdrawal from the issue occurs.

Those egalitarians angered by what they see happening to the planet may project on to those they see as responsible for climate change, or to those denying it outright, which can be the “individualists.”

Clearly, both sub-cultures have their distinct responses to climate change, and their responses lead to a further gulf between them. This paradigm of separation is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs, in emotional reactions to climate change news, and in the particular defenses each group uses to deal with these emotions.

In the end, polarization is multi-dimensional, and that makes it difficult to work through. But working through it is precisely what is needed in order to proceed with serious efforts to reduce the polarization that is potentially so crippling to our making successful efforts to address climate risks.

Let’s in the next piece in this series consider various ways to work with and through that polarization around climate change.

Suggested reading on causes of polarization:

Why smart people are vulnerable to putting tribe before truth

Tackling apathy and denial | UNA-UK Climate 2020

Too hot to handle: Politics of warming part of culture wars

Climate science as culture war

Your brain on politics: The cognitive neuroscience of liberals and conservatives

How your brain stops you from taking climate change seriously

The truth about apathy

Editor’s note:  Suggested readings added to this post on March 7, 2019.

Filed under: