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Without widespread cultural change, the climate crisis won’t be solved, says UM expert

people holding climate change protest signs
Bob Blob
Andrew Hoffman says that mass cultural attitudes towards climate change are underway— coining this era the 'Re-Enlightenment.' ";


Science shows climate change is real and humans are contributing to the problem. So, how did something science-based cause such a cultural and political divide?

University of Michigan professor Andrew Hoffman has an answer to that question.

In September, he wrote an article called “Climate Change and Our Emerging Cultural Shift.” It addressed the unique backlash to climate change science among some religious communities.

Hoffman is the author of several books, and a professor of sustainable enterprise at UM's Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School for Environment & Sustainability.

“Right here in Ann Arbor, someone pulled up a Bible in front of me at one of my talks and said God promised Noah he would not flood the earth again. The seas cannot be rising,” Hoffman said.

He found that responding to these religious climate deniers with more science didn’t convince them. That's why Hoffman began to think about our current era, and our understanding of climate change, as akin to other times of significant scientific advancement and cultural change — think the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, or the Protestant Reformation.

“Those were fundamental shifts in our cultural beliefs as a species, a fundamental shift in our perception of the environment, and a fundamental shift in how we saw the two connected. And importantly, those shifts took a hundred years,” Hoffman said.

And like those previous eras of change, the debate over climate science has been polarizing. Many conservative religious leaders reject the science, Hoffman said, because they feel their existential beliefs are being threatened. He said changing the view that believing in climate change goes against religious teachings is going to take time. In previous eras, it took hundreds of years for religious leaders to accept a new scientific understanding of the world around us.

Hoffman believes that faith leaders have power to rewrite the narrative surrounding climate change within religious communities. When people hear messages urging action on environmental issues from their religious leaders, “it connects to their deepest sense of who they are.” He sees change happening already among some religious leaders, including Pope Francis.

“I fixated on Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, Luadato Si. I think it’s an interesting document for really laying out a set of moral beliefs that we are, he doesn’t use the word Anthropocene, but he is pointing out that we are starting to live in a world that is not very nice, we are damaging it,” said Hoffman. “I love in the Catholic catechism where they say pollution is actually theft from future generations.”

The “Re-Enlightenment,” Hoffman said, is still in its early stages, and it goes beyond convincing religious people that climate change is real. It also requires us to think more creatively about how we address the threats of climate change. That means acknowledging that green technology alone won’t save us, Hoffman said. Take, for example, electric cars. While they reduce the carbon emissions of driving, they still require large amounts of energy for production. 

“If you think the answer is a windmill and an electric car, you’re not thinking big enough,” Hoffman added. “The answer is not more cars, it is rethinking mobility.”

This post was written by production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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