Academic Minute Podcast

Emily Huddart Kennedy, University of British Columbia – We Can’t Stop Climate Change by Hating Each Other

Coming together is crucial to fighting climate change.

Emily Huddart Kennedy, associate professor and associate head in the department of sociology at the University of British Columbia, exposes how stereotypes keep us apart.

Emily Huddart Kennedy is Associate Professor and Associate Head in the Department of Sociology at UBC and the author of the recently released, Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment (Princeton University Press).

We Can’t Stop Climate Change by Hating Each Other

When I interviewed residents of Washington State for a research project, liberals told me how much they hated conservatives because they don’t care about climate change. And conservatives made it clear that they don’t have much time for liberals’ “performative” concern for the environment.

Two popular stereotypes dominated my participants’ images of how liberals and conservatives feel about the environment: conservatives told me they pictured liberals in a condominium overlooking a city, obsessing over their recycling, and boasting about buying over-priced produce at a local farmers’ market.

And liberals portrayed conservatives as anti-environment; as willfully prioritizing profit over environmental protection. They pointed to conservatives as the single biggest barrier to climate action.

These two stereotypes do not encounter one another as equals. Instead, the stereotypical liberal is associated with more cultural power than the conservative stereotype. This cultural hierarchy is a significant driver of polarization over climate change – but one we each have the power to disrupt.

The most effective way for civil society to contribute to dissolving a social hierarchy is through empathy. Studies of the process of destigmatization show that once we can see people as individuals with hopes and fears, we are less likely to deem them unworthy of our respect and recognition.

With climate change, we face what Bill McKibben has described as the first existential threat to humanity. This type of challenge requires coordination and compromise – the sorts of qualities that emerge from relationships of trust and mutual respect. It is not an effective use of our minds and hearts to make moral judgments of one another’s relationships to the environment. We need to recognize our common humanity and the immensely important common ground beneath our feet: a planet we all care about, even if we do so in different and sometimes incompatible ways.


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