Mar 12, 2010

Convincing Climate Deniers

This article is cross-posted at Eidetic Illuminations.

Recently there has been quite a commotion on the Environmental Anthropology (EANTH) listserv over the science around global climate change (GCC). Essentially, a couple of climate deniers have stirred up the list, and they've been encouraged by a combination of polite people who want all voices to be heard and others who are willing to argue with them endlessly. This got me thinking about what it will take to convince climate deniers, and whether or not we should actually waste our time.

Part 1 - What is a Skeptic?
First of all, the climate deniers on the EANTH list have insisted on being called skeptics rather than deniers. They claim that "deniers" is a pejorative term meant to associate them with the likes of Holocaust deniers. So the question arises, what is a skeptic and do these individuals deserve that title?
A skeptic is a person who has an inherent doubt about any claim, and, therefore, requires a certain burden of proof to be established. Even then, a skeptic might hold on to some doubt as new evidence comes along which may change the picture. A genuine skeptic would look at the two sides of the climate debate and see that the climate scientists have a mountain of strong evidence in support of their claim (most of which is freely available from the IPCC) and a general consensus among scientists and the leading scientific organizations around the world that climate change is occurring and that it is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gasses. The skeptic would then look at the denier's case and see a paltry amount of very weak evidence, and no general consensus except among energy companies, and others for whom climate policy poses a potential threat. A genuine skeptic might look for alternative explanations, but would conceed that the weight of the evidence is in favor of anthropogenic climate change.
As a result, I reject the use of the term skeptic to describe climate deniers. They don't weigh each side equally, expecting the same burden of proof from both sides. They have taken an emotional, political stance against climate change, and will automatically reject any evidence that contradicts them. Furthermore, their "science" is driven by economic and political claims, and backed by substantial funding from oil companies.
In fact, science has a built in skepticism. Any claims must be backed by substantial evidence, and those that are not will be outed in the peer-review process. I think a great disservice has been done to science in the last decade by those who think that all opinions should carry equal weight. In the scientific world, however, claims that cannot bear the burden of proof (i.e. intelligent design and climate denial) must be discarded. Climate deniers will claim that a conspiracy of scientists has kept them from getting a fair consideration. However no such conspiracy exists, and I would be far more doubtful of "science" that comes from powerful corporations with a vested interest in halting climate policy.

Part 2 - What will it take to convince them?
As I said above, climate deniers have taken an emotional, political stance against climate change science. They are not scientists, they are not concerned with the accuracy of the data, and they are will re-interpret or discard any data that contradicts their position. The mountains of evidence that support the climate change science is not enough to convince them, so what is?
I don't think anything will convince them short of some massive disaster with clear and direct ties to climate change. Nor will long, drawn out discussion and arguments on email listservs. Whenever I see debates such as the one on the EANTH list, I am torn between the desire to correct the climate deniers and the knowledge that my arguments will never change their minds. We seem to be caught in a double bind - we can't keep quiet or they'll win, and we can't engage in discussion because they don't care about the evidence. It seems to me that all we can do is mechanically repeat the facts "The planet is warming. The warming is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gasses. It's already harming people, and will only get worse. We can do something about it." Rinse and repeat.

Part 3 - Do we really need to convince them?
The media tends to exaggerate extremes, and that's why we hear scientists arguing with climate deniers all the time in the news. Some of that needs to be done, especially for building support at the policy level. But it should be done in the way I mentioned above. Like the captured soldier being interrogated - just repeat: name, rank and serial number (or in this case, the facts behind climate change).
But Policy is not the only way to address climate change meaningfully. As Elinor Ostrom has pointed out in her report to the World Bank, Polycentric Approaches to Climate Change, we should be looking for multiple solutions on multiple scales.
When I was doing my research on the controversy surround the Holcomb power plant, I talked to a lot of people in Western Kansas about issues like climate change. There were a couple of people who suggested to me that they believed that climate change is a fiction, but overall I got the sense that most people are aware of the science and at least somewhat concerned about the potential problems that could occur. They may not be fully convinced, but they are not generally climate deniers like the two on the EANTH list or those in the media. They want to do something about climate change, but, at the same time, they take a pragmatic view of it. They are concerned about their jobs, about their families, about their health. They want a better life for themselves and their children, and climate change simply isn't the most pressing issue in their lives.
On the plus side, we don't need to convince them either, we just have to sympathize with them and figure out workable solutions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide jobs and other economic benefits for them, and help build sustainable communities. This kind of grassroots effort could then develop into a broad-based support for national policy and international governance. This approach, I believe, will be far more successful than trying to convince all of the deniers and trying to craft national legislation or international policy that will satisfy everyone.
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