Why Dismissing Climate Skeptics—Even When They’re Wrong—Is a Bad Idea

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Rep. Henry Waxman Credit: Ron Edmonds/AP

Right now the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding hearings into climate science. You can watch them here, if you’re really masochistic, or you can follow expert live blogging from Science magazine’s Eli Kintisch and others over here. I’m at a hydraulic fracturing expert panel for the Environmental Protection Agency in DC, so won’t be following the panel hearings that closely.

Not that I think there’s all that much to follow. There’s a lot of fascinating science right now being done on the edges of climate change, including work that attempts to attribute individual weather events to manmade greenhouse gas emissions. But you won’t really hear about that at the Congressional hearings, which are largely political theater. I can’t imagine there are any uncertain Americans out there who will be convinced by the science coming out of today’s hearing.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother me that the skeptic scientists invited by the Republican leadership are in way representative of the larger climate science community, or when facts are twisted. I just don’t think any of this is making a difference any longer. We’re close to a “logical schism” on climate change, similar to the wearying stalemate we’re seeing with abortion—a schism that must be broken somehow. And the way to do that might be turning down the rhetoric and listening to skeptics.

That’s the conclusion of a new paper by Andrew Hoffman, a business professor at the University of Michigan. (Hat tip to Evan Lehmann of ClimateWire, who wrote about the paper this morning.) Hoffman takes on the “climate whiplash” of the past two years, which has seen belief in climate change steadily eroding among many Americans. He notes that while the vast majority of climate studies come from the rational fields of physical science and economics, where the case that the climate is warming and that humans are the main drivers has been essentially clinched. But scientific consensus in no way equals a social consensus—if it did, then we wouldn’t see polls that show a majority of Americans are skeptical of evolution. We wouldn’t live in a country where more than half the population believes they are being helped by a guardian angel. It’s not unusual—when scientific evidence and value systems collide, value systems often win out.

In the case of things like belief in the supernatural, or even belief in evolution, it may not matter all that much if most Americans disregard the scientific consensus. In the case of climate change—when the world needs smart policies to reduce carbon and adapt to warming—it can matter very much if the problem is only posited in scientific terms. If we’re waiting for the majority of Americans to come around to the dominant scientific consensus on global warming and support policy and behavior changes, we may be waiting for a long, long time.

As the paper argues, what may be needed instead of ways of framing the climate problem that essentially sidestep the science question:

“When presenting the climate change issue, it is critical that the frames and categories used do not threaten people’s values and therefore [create] dismissive resistance to the argument,” the paper says, noting that “dormant” climate connections to religion, technology and national security might work better.

Of course, this angle can be deeply frustrating for the scientists who’ve been involved in the hard work of actually establishing the facts behind manmade warming, and for the progressive institutions that have tried make that case to the public. (Not to mention the journalists—like me—who write about it all the time.) And the concerted counter-information campaign by many fossil fuel groups to muddy the message and spread doubt have made the science-based case that much tougher to make. But those care about climate need to find a new way to talk about it. From Lehmann’s piece:

The findings indicate that people who are skeptical about climate change are talking about different issues than those who want to do something about it. Most skeptical writers haven’t accepted the scientific underpinnings of rising temperatures, while advocates for action are promoting policies to address the findings.

The trick, Hoffman says, is to find ways to talk about the same thing.

“I don’t want to use terminology like ‘I’m looking for middle ground,'” he said. “This isn’t about splitting the difference. It’s about opening channels of communication. Because if they break down and we fall into a logic schism, like abortion, then it just becomes a game of power and dominance and discussion collapses.”

Of course, once you get down into the details of what a better message would be, doubts creep in. As my colleague David Roberts at Grist has suggested to me, climate action could come down to power politics—those who believe in the need for strong action need to beat skeptics politically. But if that’s the case, well, the progressive side is in trouble, ultimately failing to capitalize in 2009 and 2010 on the most fortunate political environment for greens in history—Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute explained why in a recent essay.

Progressives could try national defense or fear of China or public health—anything beyond expecting climate science alone to make the case. (Yes, I know these aren’t new messages, but perhaps they need new packaging—something I’ll be writing about soon.) And please, no more marathon Congressional climate science hearings—if only to spare the poor journalists forced to livetweet it.