Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-mhl4m Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-02-22T23:45:26.561Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 October 2011

Michael D. Jones
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.

Copyright © American Political Science Association 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Berrens, Robert P., Bohara, Alok K., Jenkins-Smith, Hank, Silva, Carol, and Weimer, David L.. 2003. “The Advent of Internet Surveys for Political Research: A Comparison of Telephone and Internet Samples.” Political Analysis 11 (1): 122.Google Scholar
Boykoff, Maxwell T., and Boykoff, Jules M.. 2007. “Climate Change and Journalistic Norms: A Case-Study of US Mass-Media Coverage.” Geoforum 38 (6): 11901204.Google Scholar
Bray, Dennis. 2010. “The Scientific Consensus of Climate Change Revisited.” Environmental Science and Policy 13 (5): 340–50.Google Scholar
Coyle, Dennis, and Wildavsky, Aaron. 1987. “Requisites of Radical Reform: Income Maintenance versus Tax Preferences.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 7 (1): 116.Google Scholar
Doran, Peter T., and Zimmerman, Maggie Kendall. 2009. “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” EOS 90 (3): 286300.Google Scholar
Ellis, Richard J., and Thompson, Fred. 1997. “Culture and Environment in the Pacific Northwest.” American Political Science Review 91 (4): 885–97.Google Scholar
Gastil, John, Braman, Don, Kahan, Dan, and Slovic, Paul. 2011. “The Cultural Orientations of Mass Political Opinion.” PS: Political Science & Politics, this issue.Google Scholar
IPCC. 2007. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.Google Scholar
Jacoby, William G. 2010. “Policy Attitudes, Ideology and Voting Behavior in the 2008 Election.” Electoral Studies 29 (4): 557–68.Google Scholar
Jenkins-Smith, Hank C., Herron, Kerry G., and Silva, Carol L.. 2010. American Perspectives on Security: Energy, Environment, Nuclear Weapons, and Terrorism: 2010. Sandia National Laboratories Report, Albuquerque, New Mexico.Google Scholar
Jenkins-Smith, Hank C., and Smith, Walter K.. 1994. “Ideology, Culture, and Risk Perception.” In Politics, Policy, and Culture, eds. Coyle, D. J. and Ellis, R. J., 1732. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
Jones, Michael D. 2010. “Heroes and Villains: Cultural Narratives, Mass Opinions, and Climate Change.” PhD diss. University of Oklahoma.Google Scholar
Kellstedt, Paul M., Zahran, Sammy, and Vedlitz, Arnold. 2008. “Personal Efficacy, the Information Environment, and Attitudes toward Global Warming and Climate Change in the United States.” Risk Analysis 28 (1): 113–26.Google Scholar
Leiserowitz, Anthony. 2006. “Climate Change Risk Perception and Policy Preferences: The Role of Affect, Imagery, and Values.” Climatic Change 77 (1): 4572.Google Scholar
Lockhart, Charles. 1997. “Political Culture and Political Change.” In Culture Matters: Essays in Honor of Aaron Wildavsky, eds. Ellis, Richard J. and Thompson, Michael, 91104. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
Lodge, Martin, and Wegrich, Kai. 2011. “Arguing about Financial Regulation: Comparing National Discourses on the Global Financial Crisis.” PS: Political Science & Politics, this issue.Google Scholar
Malka, Ariel, Krosnick, Jon A., and Langer, Gary. 2009. “The Association of Knowledge with Concern about Global Warming: Trusted Information Sources Shape Public Thinking.” Risk Analysis 29 (5): 633–47.Google Scholar
Mamadouh, Virginie. 1999. “Grid-Group Cultural Theory: An Introduction.” GeoJournal 47 (3): 395409.Google Scholar
Nisbet, Matthew C., and Myers, Teresa. 2007. “Twenty Years of Public Opinion about Global Warming.” Public Opinion Quarterly 71 (3): 444–70.Google Scholar
Oreskes, Naomi. 2004. “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” Science 306 (5702): 1686.Google Scholar
Rayner, Steve, and Malone, Elizabeth L.. 1998. Human Choice and Climate Change: The Societal Framework. First ed. Columbus, OH: Battelle Press.Google Scholar
Schwarz, Michiel, and Thompson, Michael 1990. Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology and Social Choice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
Swedlow, Brendon. 2006. “Introduction.” In Aaron Wildavsky, Cultural Analysis: Politics, Public Law, and Administration, xi–xli. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
Swedlow, Brendon. 2011. “Cultural Surprises as Sources of Sudden, Big Policy Change.” PS: Political Science & Politics, this issue.Google Scholar
Swedlow, Brendon, and Wildavsky, Aaron. 1995. “Reporting Environmental Science.” In Aaron Wildavsky, But is it True? A Citizen's Guide to Environmental Health and Safety Issues, 375–94. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Thompson, Michael, Ellis, Richard, and Wildavsky, Aaron. 1990. Cultural Theory. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
Verweij, Marco. 2006. “Is the Kyoto Protocol Merely Irrelevant, or Positively Harmful, for the Efforts to Curb Climate Change?” In Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World: Governance, Politics, and Plural Perceptions, ed. Verweij, Marco and Thompson, Michael, 3160. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
Verweij, Marco, Douglas, Mary, Ellis, Richard, Engel, Christoph, Hendriks, Frank, Lohmann, Susanne, Ney, Steve, Rayner, Steve, and Thompson, Michael. 2006. “Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World: The Case of Climate Change.” Public Administration 84 (4): 817–43.Google Scholar
Wood, Dan B., and Vedlitz, Arnold. 2007. “Issue Definition, Information Processing, and the Politics of Global Warming.” American Journal of Political Science 51 (3): 552–68.Google Scholar
Zia, Asim, and Todd, Anne Marie. 2010. “Evaluating the Effects of Ideology on Public Understanding of Climate Change Science: How to Improve Communication across Ideological Divides?Public Understanding of Science 19 (6): 743–61.Google Scholar