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Cultures of Concern and Unconcern: Thinking Differently about Climate Change

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Lucas, CH, Cultures of Concern and Unconcern: Thinking Differently about Climate Change (2018) [PhD]


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Abstract

Amid the increasingly urgent challenges of a changing climate, inclusive public discussion about how global warming might be managed is rare. Communication by concerned scientists, activists, journalists and policy-makers is failing to connect with significant sections of society who remain unconcerned about climate change. Large and often influential publics are missing from deliberations about how we should interpret and manage this threat. This thesis, encompassing journal articles (published, in press, or in review) and substantive chapters, investigates why some people appear to have ‘switched off’ from messages about climate change. It asks what underlies increasingly polarized public responses to the issue, and how we might communicate better about climate change.

Reasons for public unconcern about climate change are not well understood. A largely quantitative research literature has explicitly or implicitly characterized unconcern either as passive disengagement, reactive apathy, or as motivated forms of climate scepticism and denial. In this thesis, I argue that climate change communication is failing to engage people who are unconcerned, in large part because it focuses on the values and narratives of people who are concerned about climate change. Where it does engage with the unconcerned, it often does so in ways that frame unconcern reductively, as a negative attitude, without addressing the active concerns and priorities of this diverse group. These unequivocally negative framings of unconcern have given rise to what I describe as a ‘concern deficit model’ of communication. I argue that a more nuanced understanding of the values and concerns involved in the lived experience of unconcern about climate change is required. This would enable more inclusive, dialogic communication between publics with divergent views. In this thesis, I take a social constructivist perspective, examining how lived social contexts, and the values embedded in them, affect how people respond to messages about climate change. I develop a mixed-method approach that considers unconcern about climate change as a substantive issue in its own right. Integrating qualitative and quantitative methods, I examine why people are concerned or unconcerned about climate change. I draw on the findings of my research to recommend ways for advocates of action on climate change to engage reflexively with expressions of unconcern.

Climate change discourse has been framed predominantly around scientific evidence and scenario modelling. Declining public trust in climate scientists, which reached a peak around the time of the ‘climategate’ controversy in 2009, has been blamed for a decrease in public concern about climate change. In a review the interdisciplinary literature on trust, I find that much of this work focusses on trust as a matter of rational decision-making. In response, I consider how trust is also implicit in everyday ways of living. I suggest that scientific claims about climate change require people to re-evaluate their implicit trust in many elements of everyday life in a way that is profoundly unsettling. I draw on theories of late modernity to describe how climate change has undermined the ability of expert systems to diagnose and arbitrate appropriate societal responses. As a product of intertwined nature and culture, climate change draws attention to the way that facts and values are inherently entangled with each other, highlighting the impossibility of a purely ‘fact-based response’ to the problem.

Polarized attitudes to climate change have been associated with political partisanship. I focus on the human values underlying divergent attitudes to climate change in order to obtain a more detailed understanding of this phenomenon. My empirical work begins with an investigation of the values underlying concern and unconcern about climate change. Statistical analysis of a survey of 522 residents of Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, Australia shows that while climate change concern is closely related to valuing nature, unconcern has two sets of roots: one in the conservative values of security, social order and tradition; and the other in values of freedom and self-direction. Examining correlations between attitudes to climate change and to extractive industries, as well as the discursive context of concern and unconcern about climate change in Hobart, it becomes clear that polarized social responses to climate change follow patterns arising from previous environmental conflicts, in this case historical conflicts over forestry and hydroelectric dams in Tasmania.

The patterns of values implicated in climate change unconcern revealed by the survey are contextualized through in-depth qualitative inquiry. I describe the design of an innovative method to enable me, over the course of an extended series of repeat interviews, to build trust and empathy with nine participants identified through the survey as expressing unconcern about climate change. I use narrative analysis to explore how diverse social contexts and concerns shape participants’ responses to climate change. The narratives shed new light on the lived experience that leads to expressions of unconcern. They also uncover a greater diversity of political contexts for and expressions of unconcern than is present in the existing literature.

The need for decisive and effective political action on climate change is currently hampered by a public discourse in which climate change is seen to be an issue that is ‘owned’ by certain social groups and their associated bodies of expertise. In this context, politicized arguments about the scientific facts of climate change mask recognition of the social values that motivate them. Investigating unconcern as a substantive matter, through empathetic forms of dialogue, enabled me to engage with it as an expression of legitimate life concerns. On this basis, I argue that unconcern has the potential to create constructive forms of pressure to improve climate change communication, coalition-building and policy making. To realize this potential, advocates of climate action must recognize that their own concern about climate change is not founded on objective knowledge alone. The opportunity to engage respectfully and productively with people who think differently about climate change requires reflexivity about the ways in which all concerns are shaped by values and the social contexts of lived experience.

Item Details

Item Type:PhD
Keywords:climate change, public attitudes, polarisation, culture, communication, human values, mixed methods, Tasmania
Research Division:Studies in Human Society
Research Group:Human Geography
Research Field:Social and Cultural Geography
Objective Division:Environment
Objective Group:Climate and Climate Change
Objective Field:Climate and Climate Change not elsewhere classified
UTAS Author:Lucas, CH (Dr Chloe Lucas)
ID Code:129330
Year Published:2018
Deposited By:Geography and Spatial Science
Deposited On:2018-11-23
Last Modified:2018-11-28
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