Climate change enters the boardroom

You’d have thought that with the near-frenzy over Copenhagen, climate change has shouldered its way into mainstream alongside issues such as national debt or health provision. But the recent flurry of public mudslinging between ‘climate believers’ and ‘climate deniers’ (Glaciergate and Datagate, to name just two) has shown that it is still a divisive issue. This doesn’t bode well for prospects of decisive, effective action to reduce the impact of climate change, or to prepare society for what this action might mean. It leaves the door wide open for all tranches of society to be affected by climate change.

Is it ever going to be anything other than an issue which people don’t agree on? Well, there is hope. At TED 2010, Bill Gates focused his talk on climate change. In his eyes, if you work to support disadvantaged elements of society working to reduce and remove the threats posed by climate change is vital.

I'm going to talk today about energy and climate. And that might seem a bit surprising because my full-time work at the foundation is mostly about... the things we need to ...help the poorest two billion live better lives. But energy and climate are extremely important to these people, in fact, more important than to anyone else on the planet.

This is a worthwhile lesson for civil society organisations to take on board. If you’re unsure how climate change might impact on your work, have a look at our driver and our event, as well as the pages on the NCVO website looking at what sector organisations can do to mitigate and prepare for climate change.

But to me, Gates’ announcement is even more important. Why? Because it works against the embedded cultural cognition that drives the two polarised camps around climate change. What am I on about? Cultural cognition refers to:

the influence of group values on risk perceptions and related beliefs – ones relating to equality and authority, individualism and community.

A recent article by Dan Kahan (Elizabeth K Dollard professor of Law at Yale Law school) examines this phenomenon, particularly in relation to reactions to climate change. The theory of cultural cognition puts forward that individuals align with positions that they perceive as being the same as their own. Cultural cognition also means people interpret new data in such a way to reinforce what they already believe. Katherine has written about a similar concept: ‘groupthink’.

Kahan explains that

people find it disconcerting to believe that behaviour that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society and behaviour that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.

It strikes me that this is important for organisations who work on issues such as poverty and homelessness. But I digress.

What Gates did which was so pivotal, was to reverse this kind of association. Kahan’s research found that ‘climate deniers’ tend to be those who, among other characteristics, ‘admire’ commerce and industry. To accept climate change and that it is rooted in human activity would therefore be to accept  the necessity to curb these activities. Gates is the epitome of what Kahan’s research labels ‘individualistic values’ , those which typically refuse climate change. In plain English, Gates is a suited office worker type. By coming out fighting for action on climate change he may well bring with him legions of similar ‘individualistic valuers’ who have previously been deniers.

Last updated at 18:09 Mon 12/Apr/10.
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