by Judith Curry
We find that climate science scepticism is not limited to the scientifically illiterate, but well ensconced within this group of professional experts with scientific training – who work as leaders or advisors to management in governmental, non-governmental, and corporate organizations.
Science or science fiction? Professionals’ discursive construction of climate change
Lianne Lefsrud and Renate Meyer
Abstract. This paper examines the framings and identity work associated with professionals’ discursive construction of climate change science, their legitimation of themselves as experts on ‘the truth’, and their attitudes towards regulatory measures. Drawing from survey responses of 1077 professional engineers and geoscientists, we reconstruct their framings of the issue and knowledge claims to position themselves within their organizational and their professional institutions. In understanding the struggle over what constitutes and legitimizes expertise, we make apparent the heterogeneity of claims, legitimation strategies, and use of emotionality and metaphor. By linking notions of the science or science fiction of climate change to the assessment of the adequacy of global and local policies and of potential organizational responses, we contribute to the understanding of ‘defensive institutional work’ by professionals within petroleum companies, related industries, government regulators, and their professional association.
Published in Organizational Studies, [link] to full manuscript. Excerpts from the Discussion and Conclusions:
We examine the discursive contestation of climate change and associated expertise by professional engineers and geoscientists. We use an instrumental case to examine the debate among these professionals who dominate the oil industry in Alberta, with the oil sands as a source of particularly ‘dirty’ oil. In answering our research question, this article discusses both the construction of expertise in discursive battlefields and elucidates a more nuanced understanding of climate change frames. Ours is not simply a story of alternative frames; this is a contestation among those who wish to claim definitional authority.
Expertise, as we have pointed out, relies on credibility and has to demonstrate ‘informedness’ and objectivity of judgment. The overwhelming majority of these professionals use these elements to construct their frames and ground the appropriateness of their judgments; nonetheless they come to very different viewpoints concerning the ‘problem’ and attitudes towards regulation and action. However, these professionals do not only engage in a dispute over the ‘cause’ or content of their claim, i.e., the appropriate definition of an issue or the adequacy of a proposed solution; they also engage in identity and boundary work – to varying degrees – to legitimate themselves as experts and de-legitimate opponents as non-experts, while establishing the cognitive authority of their version of science versus others’ non-science. Defense can result from different worldviews and from identity threats.
We show that the consensus of IPCC experts meets a much larger, and again heterogenous, sceptical group of experts in the relevant industries and organizations (at least in Alberta) than is generally assumed. We find that climate science scepticism is not limited to the scientifically illiterate, but well ensconced within this group of professional experts with scientific training – who work as leaders or advisors to management in governmental, non-governmental, and corporate organizations. We find that the heterogeneity of professionals’ framings is a function of their degree of identification/mobilization with others but is also a function of their degree of defensiveness against others , even other insiders. Further, these professionals’ framings are also linked to their position within their firm, to their industry, and to the industry’s relevance for the region . We discuss this in more detail below. Hence, our findings give greater granularity in understanding which professionals are more likely to resist, why and how they will resist, and who is more likely to be successful.
With our findings, we provide additional insights into climate change resistance. Our study confirms that there are significant framing differences regarding the existence of anthropogenic climate change and the consequent calls for action or, equally often, inaction on the policy and organizational level, even within professional experts in one particular geographical context. The vast majority of these professional experts believe that the climate is changing; it is the cause, the severity and the urgency of the problem, and the need to take action, especially the efficacy of regulation, that is at issue. By looking into the content of the frames, the discourse coalitions they enable, and the identity and boundary work they entail, our results provide more nuanced insights into the subtleties of institutional defense.
While ‘comply with Kyoto’ adherents share the storyline privileged by the IPCC and regard scientific knowledge to be conclusive enough to support mandatory action, not even the second pro-regulation group (‘regulation activists’) joins their support for the international Protocol. In addition, ‘comply with Kyoto’ adherents do not engage in mobilization and boundary work and do little to legitimate their position. This may seem surprising, but becomes more comprehensible when taking into consideration their strong belief that the fundamental debate on whether or not climate change is anthropogenic is settled and that the ‘consensus among scientists’ has informed enforceable regulation. From such a perspective, it seems reasonable to avoid re-heating old conflict lines and being as inclusive as possible – our findings show that they emphasize fraternity and collaboration, and keep emotionality low. What they seem to have underestimated is that, even if the contestation may have been over on scientific terms, it was certainly not over on political grounds – as indicated by Canada’s recent decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol.
On the other hand, regulation contrarians form a discourse coalition despite different rationales underlying their scepticism. Anthropogenic climate change sceptics (‘nature is overwhelming’) link up with promoters of ‘economic responsibility’ who – irrespective of what actually causes climate change – oppose the high economic cost of interventions that, according to them, will negatively affect competitiveness and jeopardize progress in the Western world. Both downplay the environmental risks associated with climate change and, hence, deny the appropriateness of regulation and global agreements. In addition, we found quite a large group of ‘fatalists’. Although they do not share the contrarians’ diagnosis or prognosis – for them, the issue is too complex and all knowledge we have is biased – they also do not believe in the efficacy of taking action. In this sense, through their fatalism and inaction, they benefit the non-regulationists and contribute to defense.
However, in framing contests between different expert groups, it is not only the ‘truth’ that is at stake, but also one’s status as expert. It would threaten the expert identity and undermine the positioning of this group in the future if regulators ‘listened’ to professional experts whose truth claims contradict their own. Thus, by opposing regulation, they are defending their expert status. Nonetheless, similar to ‘comply with Kyoto’ adherents, this group’s legitimation activity, boundary work, and action mobilization is low. The interpretation scheme inherent in their frame and the position of the adherents in the socio-economic field of our study offer several potential answers. They make a strong claim that climate science is fraudulent and believe that the debate is not settled and ‘good science’ will eventually overcome science fiction. Since all regulation is ineffective anyway, there is also no urgency. This group is clearly overrepresented in top management positions, especially in the oil and gas industry. Thus, they may see little need to legitimate their own framing and mobilize because they are in the command posts of their organizations anyway. Moreover, to downplay the impact of humankind on the environment in general is a quite ‘handy’ framing for top management of oil and gas corporations.
While ‘nature is overwhelming’ adherents only see regulation to be useless, ‘economic responsibility’ proponents actively oppose regulation and mobilize against it. This is consistent with the prognosis and action rationale inherent in their frame. For them, the ‘cure is much worse than the disease’. Thus, not only is their position as expert threatened; what is in danger and in need of protection is not so much the environment as the economic development and interests that are put at stake by badly counseled politicians. This may explain why ‘economic responsibility’ adherents de-legitimate ‘them’, undermine their standing, and are much more emotional than other groups.
What are the potential implications of these findings for organizational and policy responses? In matters such as climate change, organizational decision-makers and policy-makers must turn to scientists and experts to justify their lines of action. We have shown that action is delayed not only by those who see interests they prioritize jeopardized and therefore actively engage in defensive institutional work; when action is required (either to decide new regulation or to implement existing regulation), inaction contributes to defense, and identity threats make opponents. Moreover, as is known from research in corporate political activities, with issues like this, variance in experts’ opinions is an effective strategy to undermine legislation and regulation. Thus, the mere existence of a lively contestation counts as an asset on the side of the regulation opponents and delays action. Moreover, as our analyses of the diagnostic, prognostic and motivational claims-making revealed, currently there are more effective discursive opportunities to engage in coalitions for regulation opponents (especially against the Kyoto Protocol) than for supporters.
On the one end of the influence spectrum, there are those experts who are in positions to impact organizational decision-making, either directly, via hierarchical position, or indirectly, via their position as advisors to decision-makers. On the other end, there are experts with little or no authority to make their insights binding or relevant for others. Although most experts are positioned somewhere in the middle, our results indicate that those who are more defensive occupy more senior organizational positions and are much closer to decision-making than activists. This can only partly be explained by adherents of defensive framings being older and more likely to be male compared to activists. More importantly, this entanglement of frames and identities with economic positions raises the question for future research whether these individuals adapt their frames as they move upwards in the hierarchy of industry’s organizations or whether a defensive attitude towards environmental regulation is a prerequisite to such a career.
This evidently has an impact on organizational strategies to address climate change and may partly account for the reluctance to develop and implement adequate strategies. Given the impact of this industry on Alberta and the Canadian economy as a whole, it seems unlikely that the defensive institutional work by those in powerful positions within fossil fuel-related firms and industry associations can be breached in the near future without global enforcement mechanisms. And from a policy perspective, the continuing scientific disagreement regarding anthropogenic climate change together with the increasing weariness and fatigue about the subject on the part of the electorate is unlikely to increase policy-makers’ inclination to further regulate GHG emissions. The Canadian Government’s decision in December 2011 to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol and avoid CAD 14 billion in penalties has shown this quite plainly.
JC comments: This is one of the most interesting articles that I’ve encountered on climate change skeptics. I look forward to your comments.