The challenges of climate and attitude change

Former IIEP Director Professor Gudmund Hernes spoke at IIEP

Why is it so difficult to change people’s attitudes and belief systems? This question was addressed by Prof. Gudmund Hernes* (former IIEP Director, 1999–2005) during a strategic debate held at the Institute on 15 January 2013. His presentation concerned the challenges posed by climate change and the difficulties in both mobilizing public support and reaching international agreements on global warming measures.  It was based on his book Hot Topic – Cold Comfort (NordForsk, 2012) (downloadable free of charge here).

To illustrate the inertia in some people’s views, Hernes took the example of the scientific revolution, which resulted in a new understanding of mankind’s place in the universe. Even today, he said, there are some who reject the Copernican cosmology or Darwin’s evolution theory. Today we see that the “ecological revolution”, which began in the mid-20th century has led to a new “geo-centric” or “eco-centric” mindset in many people. Hernes underlined his view that changes in people’s opinions and worldviews are prompted less by arguments than by major events that shatter their preconceptions.

Resistance to change, he said, may be explained in terms of what he called “the double embedding of opinions” – that is, attitudes are lodged simultaneously in the “logical lattices” of conceptual maps and in our social networks. The result is a mutual reinforcement, continuity, and conservation of belief systems. “Opinions come in ensembles, friends come in clusters – and both come together”.

Crisis can lead to change

Asked what mechanisms might bring about attitudinal and behavioural change in the field of education, Hernes replied that, here as well, “major events can play an important role”, as did the “Sputnik shock” in 1957 in the USA or, more recently, the “PISA shock in Germany” which placed German unexpectedly low in the ranking of countries with regard of skill acquisition of 15 year olds in 2001. He recommended that policy-makers exploit crises to introduce needed change in education systems. Teachers also ought to integrate “events” in their teaching in order to affect pupils’ emotions and perhaps improve learning.

Gail Townsend, Director of the Planning and Development Division in the Ministry of Education of the Cook Islands, and currently enrolled in IIEP’s Advanced Training Programme, remarked that her country has recently been heavily affected by climate change. A greater frequency and intensity of storms and periods of drought threaten the livelihood of the population on the many small islands making up the country. In response, the Cook Islands has developed a series of policies to make the education system more resilient to natural catastrophes, in terms of both infrastructure and human resources, as well as a curriculum in the area of “education for sustainable development”, which is one of UNESCO’s priorities.

The discussion after the debate focused on the responses that educational planners could formulate, with regard to both strengthening the resilience of education systems affected by climate change, and modifying curricula. Participants also highlighted the importance of reaching out to decision-makers, so that sustainable responses to climate change may be formulated at the policy level. This would necessitate a constant effort in the industrialized (and industrializing) countries to influence public opinion and beliefs about climate change.

* Gudmund Hernes has served as Minister of Education (1990–1995) and Minister of Health (1995–1997) in Norway; and as Director of IIEP (1999–2005). He is currently a Professor at the Norwegian Business School in Political Economy.

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