Climate Change Science and Responsible Trust: A Situated Approach
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In a world rife with specialized knowledge, a responsible trust placed in other knowers or institutions of knowledge production is crucial to our capacity to know things ourselves. In the case of climate change science, the stakes of our trust or distrust are very high. Our beliefs about climate change shape both our behavior and policy development, and those beliefs are formed in part by the degree of trust we place in climate change science and the institutions that produce such science. Although the credibility of climate change science has received a good deal of attention recently, most of the discussion has adapted a generic approach to knowing, considering whether members of a generic public do and/or should trust the science.1 Here, I extend a feminist situated knowledge approach to the conditions of responsible trust and/or distrust in climate change science. As it has been developed and argued for by both standpoint theorists and epistemologists of ignorance, a situated approach to both knowing and ignorance takes seriously the idea that one’s social location both limits and shapes one’s knowing, and further argues that these shapings are often best understood by considering the lines of power that differentiate our social positions. My interest is not just in the presence of differential degrees of trust in climate change science across the public, but rather how we are to understand what constitutes good knowing and inquiry on behalf of particularly situated laypersons when matters of trust are involved. That is to say, there will always be cases of misplaced epistemic trust and distrust, and many laypersons will not be motivated to try to know well regarding certain issues. But for those who do seek to know well, an understanding of how positionality is implicated in matters of epistemic trust is important. Whereas feminist work on trust in science has focused on the marginalized and contexts of reasonable distrust in scientific institutions (Scheman 2001), here I focus on the implications of a situated approach for understanding trust and distrust from the position of the privileged using the case of climate change. There is evidence that white males in the United States are more likely to distrust or disavow climate science than are other demographic groups. On a situated approach, an assessment of whether such distrust could be a responsible distrust must consider the possible relevance of the privileged social location of white males. The logic of feminist standpoint theory and the epistemologies of ignorance suggests that a critical reflexivity of social position is required in order to produce knowledge well, and I argue that this insight holds as well in the case ofknowing through trust. If laypersons in privileged social locations are going to know well, there will be many contexts in which it will be important for them to consider the levels of trust that those in differently situated positions place in the science under examination.
The Credibility of Climate Science
Matters of trust permeate our interactions with scientific institutions and research communities of all sorts and at all levels, but there are certain features of climate change science that make it particularly vexing with respect to trust. Among these, it is exceptionally complex and operates within a context of uncertainty; it attempts to predict climates into the long-term future while accounting for yet unknown human responses to climate change. Additionally, as a global phenomenon, climate change is often not locally observable or easy to reconcile with laypersons’ local experiences, making its seriousness sometimes challenging to convey. Finally, climate change science has been identified as a paradigm case of “post-normal science” (Saloranta 2001; Hulme 2009). In contexts of post-normal science, the public does not simply expect science to produce factual answers to questions. Rather it expects to be able to apply the science to public issues under circumstances in which “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” (Funtowicz and Ravetz1993). Post-normal science presents particular challenges for laypersons, who must find ways to responsibly trust scientific institutions, since the boundaries between the knowledge produced and policy implications begin to blur and with that, political interests play a prominent role in the development and presentation of the knowledge.
For feminist epistemologists interested in knowledge-based trust issues, climate change science is also a particularly interesting and challenging case to examine for additional reasons: the cornerstone of feminist epistemologies has been the adoption of a situated approach to knowing, that is, recognizing that one’s knowledge possibilities are shaped and limited by particular social locations (Grasswick 2011). Alison Wylie has argued further that to understand exactly how and when social location makes a difference to particular knowledge endeavors, we must examine them contextually (Wylie 2003). The context of climate change is interesting to consider through a situated approach because it is both global and locally differentiated. On the one hand, it can be considered maximally global because it is a crisis argued to have significance for everyone, including future generations and nonhuman life. This suggests that with respect to climate change we human beings may share a certain “global location.” On the other hand, it is well recognized that the actual problem of climate change will likely affect certain groups of people, particularly the globally marginalized, more significantly and more rapidly than others, positioning people differently as stakeholders. Indeed, much of the recent work on gender and climate change has focused on how many women in the world may have a higher vulnerability to the early repercussions of climate change because of their relative lack of power in a patriarchal world (Denton 2002; Terry 2009). Interests also differ across social location in terms of how much one has to lose if early mitigation measures for climate change are adopted. I am interested in how we humans might be differently situated with respect to how we confront the science of climate change, and what a situated approach can contribute to understanding responsible knowing practices in this case.2
Attitudes and Levels of Trust in Climate Change Science: The White Male Effect
There has been much lament over the apparent disconnect between the level of consensus among climate scientists and the public’s level of trust in the “facts” of climate science. This is especially so in the United States, where the public’s views do not match the views of the experts very well. The top scientists working on climate change are in broad agreement that anthropogenic climate change is happening and that it is a serious problem (Oreskes 2004). The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” (with “very likely” being defined as over 90% probability) (IPCC 2007). The IPCC has been called “one of the most inclusive and transparent exercises in international science consensus building the world has ever seen” (Jasanoff 2011, 130) with over 2,000 contributing scientists. Moreover, a recent study found that only 2% of the top 50 climate researchers, as ranked by expertise, were unconvinced by the evidence for climate change (Anderegg et al. 2010). Yet when it comes to public perceptions of climate change, the situation is quite different.
According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, in 2012 only 66% of Americans believed global warming is happening, with only 46% saying that if global warming is happening, it is caused mostly by human activities (Yale Project 2012).3 Furthermore, only 35% of Americans agreed that most scientists think global warming is happening, whereas 41% say there is “a lot of disagreement” among scientists whether or not global warming is happening. Though survey results fluctuate somewhat, what remains steady is the fact that the public belief in anthropogenic climate change lags well behind the consensus of the climate change scientific community.
Although this literature gives a general sense of the disconnect between the beliefs of climate change scientists (the experts) and the public in the United States, a situated approach suggests the importance of investigating the possibility of social differences in beliefs in and trust of climate change science. Interestingly, empirical research has shown a statistically significant gender gap in the belief in and concern with global warming. Prominent in this area is the work of Aaron M. McCright, who has found that American women have a higher level of knowledge with respect to the facts about climate change, and a higher level of concern than do men about climate change. Analysis of eight years of Gallup polls shows that a greater percentage of women than men believe global warming is happening now (59% to 54%) and is primarily caused by human activities (64% to 56%). More American women than men worry about global warming a great deal (35% to 29%), believe global warming will threaten their way of life during their lifetime (37% to 28%), and believe the seriousness of global warming is underestimated in the news (35% to 28%) (McCright 2010). This gender gap is statistically significant and consistent over time (McCright 2010), though as McCright notes it is not overwhelming in size compared with such characteristics as party affiliation, with Republicans much more likely to be skeptical of the presence of global warming and its links to human activities (see Dunlap and McCright 2008).4
But the story becomes more interesting when McCright’s results are considered in combination with other angles of research concerningwhite men. For example, in considering relationships between values and environmental outlooks (a much broader category than simply climate change) Linda Kalof, Thomas Dietz, Gregory Guagnano, and Paul C. Stern found that the values and beliefs of white men were “substantially different” from those of the other subgroups studied (black women and men, Hispanic women and men, and white women). “White men placed substantially less importance on altruism, self-interest, and traditionalism than did White women, and White men were less likely than White women to endorse proenvironmental beliefs” (Kalof et al. 2002, 122). Interpreting their results, they suggest that “the key variable associated with environmentalism and altruism may be membership in the most advantaged social structural or cultural group in the society, rather than race or gender per se” (122). This suspicion is consistent with feminist epistemological arguments that the relevance of social location to epistemic pursuits depends most prominently on contingent and complex intertwining social systems of privilege and disadvantage and is not dependent on there being inherent differences in epistemic capacities of different groups. It is differences in social privilege that are of primary interest to feminist epistemologists, and that serve as the focal point for this paper.
There is now a substantial body of research demonstrating what has been termed the “white-male effect”: the tendency for white males to perceive risk as much lower than do other demographic groups. Recalling that climate change is a prime example of post-normal science, in which there are high stakes, high uncertainty, and a close connection between the demands for knowledge and the demands for policy, these findings of low risk perception in white males are important in understanding the dynamics of climate change belief and trust. The white-male effect was discovered when researchers found that across twenty-five hazard items, including climate change (and many other environmental hazards), white males consistently perceived the risks of these hazards as lower than other groups did (Flynn, Slovic, and Mertz 1994). More interesting still, they found that the significant difference between white males and others was accounted for by a sub-group consisting of about 30% of the white male subjects. This sub-group had very low risk-perception scores, and were differentiated from other white males in terms of being better educated, having higher household incomes, and being politically more conservative (Slovic 1999). This has come to be known by some as the “conservative white male effect.” Furthermore, strong evidence has been found for a conservative white male effect on climate change denial (McCright and Dunlap 2011).
Explanations from social psychology for the conservative white male effect on risk perception in general and climate change denial in particular has focused on two complementary theses. The first, the identity-protective cognition thesis, draws on the work of cultural cognition, according to which subjects’ cognition is oriented according to their cultural worldviews. Specifically, cultural cognition theorists divide cultural worldviews along two axes: hierarchical versus egalitarian orientations, and individualistic versus communitarian orientations, arguing that one’s cultural worldview affects how one receives information. In the case of risk perception, these cultural worldviews interact with the impact of race and gender, such that the white-male effect on risk perception results in part from those white men who hold hierarchical and individualistic worldviews (Kahan et al. 2007). The thesis of identity-protective cognition suggests an explanation: subjects exhibit a kind of motivated cognition that “serves to protect the status and self-esteem that individuals receive from group membership” (McCright and Dunlap 2011, 1165). For hierarchical, individualistic, white males, environmental risk and climate change risk would threaten their group’s activities and beliefs with the possibility of environmental regulation, making them more likely to take positions of risk skepticism, or outright climate change denial (McCright and Dunlap 2011). The second thesis offered as a partial explanation of the white-male effect is the system-justifying attitude thesis, according to which conservatives have stronger tendencies than liberals to justify and defend the current social and economic system, resisting change to the status quo (Jost et al. 2008). As McCright and Dunlap note, “conservative white males are likely to favor protection of the current industrial capitalist order which has historically served them well” (McCright and Dunlap 2011, 1165). These two theses complement the more theoretical arguments of many feminist epistemologists who point out the ways in which those occupying privileged social positions may have difficulties recognizing features of oppression and exploitation because they are invested in the system being and remaining as it is. In the case of climate change, they may have difficulties recognizing the threat and the need for mitigation efforts, given that they both have much to lose by such mitigation efforts that threaten current social structures that serve the privileged well, and they are the least vulnerable to the immediate effects of climate change.
To say that a group (white men) are more likely to be climate change deniers, or to perceive the risk of climate change as lower than others do, is not quite the same thing as claiming that they have a lower level of trust in the institutions that are producing this knowledge and conveying it, though there is obviously a close link. For example, one survey by the Brookings Institution found that of those who do not think that global warming is occurring, eight out of ten also believe that “scientists are overstating evidence about global warming for their own interest.” In contrast, of those who do believe global warming is occurring, only three out of ten believe scientists are overstating the case to serve their interests (Borick and Rabe 2012). Some have argued that in the highly politicized and public space in which climate change discussions occur, laypersons actually experience a “bifurcated flow of information” consisting of roughly two camps: those who argue for the seriousness of climate change and its human causes, including many natural scientists (such as the IPCC members), environmental advocacy groups, and some Democratic party politicians, and those who are skeptical of the reality, seriousness, and human causes of climate change, including certain contrarian scientists, several right-wing advocacy groups, some Republican politicians, and several conservative media personalities (Malka, Krosnick, and Langer 2009).5 When laypersons are faced with such a “bifurcated flow of information” they are likely to rely on those sources they trust most, rejecting the information from the other flow (Malka, Krosnick, and Langer 2009). Those who rely on the climate skeptics for their information are in essence distrusting the mainstream institutions of climate change science by rejecting their climate change information in favor of information provided by the other flow of information.
The empirical work on the white-male effect and trust when faced with a bifurcated flow of information suggests that the story of how social location affects people’s trust in climate change science is complex, and I submit that we should expect nothing less given the variety of ways in which the claims of climate change can interact with our other beliefs, values, and practices, alongside our structures of knowledge production and dissemination. But the evidence suggesting that white men are at least more likely to distrust climate change science than are other demographic groups, coupled with the connections drawn between positions of privilege and patterns of trust and belief, motivates my next question of what feminist analyses of situated knowing can offer to an understanding of the parameters of responsible lay knowing from positions of social privilege.