The role of social sciences in environmental and conservation conflicts

It has been long recognised that an understanding of human interests and positions is important in better understanding and delivering conservation policies. Environmental issues and conflicts do not consist solely of matters which can be addressed by the natural sciences. The involvement of those who specialise in the social sciences in environmental and conservation conflicts will often provide insights into the way people behave which are key to ensuring effective actions and outcomes follow.

Bennett N.J. et al (2017) have recently published a review paper of how a broad range of social sciences can contribute to and help deliver conservation outcomes which are more ‘legitimate, salient, robust and effective’. The paper ‘Conservation social science: understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve conservation’ is published in Biological Conservation and is open access – it can be downloaded here.

I have recently read How culture shapes the climate change debate (Hoffman 2015) which is a good example of how the social sciences can provide context, understanding and potential approaches for conflict resolution in the polarised debate around the issues of climate change, science and anthropogenic global warming in the United States.

Hoffman argues that climate change is not really about carbon dioxide and complex mathematical models, it is really about opposing cultural values and worldviews.

The book describes how we all use cognitive filters to look for information that supports our pre-existing beliefs. These cognitive filters reflect our cultural identity known as cultural cognition. This leads to us developing ‘worldviews’ are consistent with others in our group. This cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning. Our cultural identity is also influenced by economic, political and technological matters and this creates our own political economy which creates an inertia for change.

In the case of the polarised debate in the US around climate change it means that different groups view the same science but see different things which creates a cultural schism. For example, those who dismiss climate change as a threat to society, see policies brought in to lessen the impacts of climate change as an interference with the market, the overpowering hand of Big Government which diminishes personal freedoms – a threat to their livelihoods, their wealth, their way of life and perhaps even their religious beliefs.

This leads to the use of ideological filters which are influenced by our belief systems and creates motivated reasoning and our cultural cognition. Greater weight is given to evidence that supports our pre-existing beliefs and causes biased assimilation or confirmation bias. Conversely, we refute evidence that challenges our pre-existing beliefs and this is known as disconfirmation bias.

These biases are exacerbated by our bounded rationality i.e. we are limited by the type and amount of information we can access and by our cognitive ability to process it. As a result, we are cognitive misers only spending time on things that are important to us.

Hoffman goes on to suggest that there are four main reasons why people disagree about climate change.

  1. Distrust of the messengers – e.g. Al Gore for example is seen by neo-liberal Democrats as a left wing liberal environmentalist who is using the issue to make himself money. A ‘watermelon’ – green on the outside, red on the inside.
  2. Distrust of the process that created the message – e.g. the scientific review process is corrupt (peer review = pal review), Climategate, distrust of the IPCC and the United Nations. Scientists only do the research to get grants to keep them in employment.
  3. Distrust of the message itself – e.g. carbon dioxide is good – it makes plants grow, environmental disasters as a result of climate change are simply not possible, climate change challenges their notion of God.
  4. Distrust of the solutions that come from the message –g. interventions to reduce climate change lead to an intrusive Government, impacts our personal lives and the free market.

In effect both sides of the argument are speaking different languages: science verses neo-liberalism.

As such there are three options for resolution:-

  • The optimistic path – a technological solution will be invented which means we can maintain our lifestyles and levels of prosperity without needing to use fossil fuels.
  • The pessimistic path – a combative path in which the battles will continue until one side eventually wins.
  • The consensus based path – a consensus based approach to conflict resolution.

Tactics for bridging the cultural schism – a social science approach

  1. The messenger is as important as the message – choose leaders carefully – ones that can bridge the divide
  2. Address the process by which the message was created – rather than trying to address the issue in its entirety e.g. the IPCC Consensus Statement, break it down into a number of discrete pieces e.g. are greenhouse gases increasing?, does this lead to a warming of the planet?, has the climate changed?, are humans responsible?, what is the environmental and social impacts? Gradual consensus building.
  3. Choose messages that are personally acceptable – messages needed to be framed to specific audiences and need to be made personal e.g. some may prefer a risk management approach i.e. what will happen to our insurance premiums; others may prefer public health threat approach as it is personal and salient.
  4. Present solutions for a commonly desired future – rather than focusing on what must be sacrificed concentrate on solutions, innovation and current successes

Defining a social science theory of change

  • Build the trust of those we are trying to influence
  • Create a vision for where we might go
  • Understand how to overcome people’s fears

Building trust is vital and something that is sadly lacking at the core of many conflicts. Creating a joint vision can only occur once there is trust and dialogue led by a trusted messenger. Understanding people’s fears again can only come from dialogue and research.

Hoffman finally states that there three central points to a theory of change.

  1. Focus on the middle – not the extreme scenarios like 6m sea level rise
  2. Employ the radical flank – there are those with radical positions – use them to create a bigger and more attractive central ground
  3. Never waste a good crisis – in the aftermath of recent hurricane events the costs of insurance have been monetised by the Markets and this makes climate change current and real in people’s minds and makes them more likely to act.

These four quotes from the book seem very pertinent to me.

“More science, though important, will not by itself change people’s minds and create the collective will to act”

“It is about competing worldviews and the cultural beliefs of people who must accept change even when it challenges their beliefs”

“When engaging in the debate we must think not only of the science but also about the socio-political processes and tactics necessary to get people to hear it”

“Know your theory of change and enact it”

I found How culture shapes the climate change debate a fascinating book which helped explain to me why climate change science is so divisive in the US.

Interestingly a great many of the ideas set out in the book are directly relevant to our own conflicts in the Uplands here in England and on Dartmoor along with the search for consensus. We need to spend a great deal more time working out tactics for bridging the cultural schisms, building trust, focusing on the middle, employing the radical flank(s) and not wasting the good crisis that is Brexit.

Nathan J. Bennett, Robin Roth, Sarah C. Klain, Kai Chan, Patrick Christie, Douglas A. Clark, Georgina Cullman, Deborah Curran, Trevor J. Durbin, Graham Epstein, Alison Greenberg, Michael P Nelson, John Sandlos, Richard Stedman, Tara L Teel, Rebecca Thomas,
Diogo Veríssimo & Carina Wyborn. (2017) Conservation social science: understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve conservation. Biological Conservation 205: 93-108. Open Access.

Andrew J. Hoffman (2015) How culture shapes the climate change debate. Stanford Briefs. Stanford University Press.

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