Leading the Way to Compromise? Cultural Theory and Climate Change Opinion

Michael D. Jonesa1

a1 Harvard University

Climate change is easily one of the most contentious policy problems facing the United States. A majority of climate scientists agree that the earth has warmed over the last 100 years and that human-made greenhouse gasses are the cause (e.g., Doran and Zimmerman 2009; IPCC 2007; Oreskes 2004, but also see Bray 2010), yet a nontrivial portion of the US population diverges sharply from this dominant scientific position (see, for example, Jenkins-Smith, Herron, and Silva 2010, 41–45; Leiserowitz 2006; Nisbet and Myers 2007). Why? Past research usually points to the public's lack of climate change knowledge (e.g., Kellstedt, Zahran, and Vedlitz 2008), finds that media over report the views of climate change skeptics in a misplaced quest for “balanced” reporting (e.g., Boykoff and Boykoff 2007, but see Swedlow and Wildavsky 1995), or the public simply take cues from opinion leaders whom they trust (e.g., Malka, Krosnick, and Langer 2009). This article moves beyond the predominant concern with climate change knowledge, messaging structures, and cue taking in past research, and shifts the focus to characteristics intrinsic to the individual. The research presented here assesses the extent that the cultural theory (CT) developed by Mary Douglas, Aaron Wildavsky, and others (see, e.g., Schwarz and Thompson 1990; Thompson, Ellis, and Wildavsky 1990) can help political scientists understand why so many Americans do not align themselves with the majority of scientists and can help policy makers broker compromises on climate change policy.

(Online publication October 18 2011)

Michael D. Jones received his PhD from the University of Oklahoma in 2010. He is currently a research fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. His interests include public opinion, metrics for assessing belief systems, the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF), and, more generally, theories of the policy process. He can be reached at