Don't ignore climate skeptics – talk to them differently
More scientific data won’t convince doubters of climate change. But reframing the debate as one about values could make a difference.
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So, the focus of the discussion must move away from positions (climate change is or is not happening) and toward the underlying interests and values at play. It must engage at the deeper ideological levels where resistance is taking place, using new ways to frame the argument to bridge both sides.Skip to next paragraph
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For example, when US Energy Secretary Steven Chu refers to advances in renewable-energy technology in China as America's "Sputnik moment," he is framing climate change as a common threat to economic competitiveness. When Pope Benedict links the threat of climate change with threats to life and dignity, he is painting it as an issue of religious morality.
When the Military Advisory Board, a group of retired military officers, refers to climate change as a "threat multiplier," it is using a national-security frame.
And when the Pew Center refers to climate change as an issue of risk management, it is promoting climate insurance just as homeowners buy fire insurance. This is the way to engage the debate; not hammering skeptics with more data and expressing dismay that they don't get it.
"Climate brokers" can also help bridge the divide. People are more likely to feel open to consider evidence when it is accepted or, ideally, presented by a knowledgeable member of their cultural community. Given that a majority of Republicans do not believe there is solid evidence of global warming, the most effective broker would best come from the political right. At present, no one is readily playing this role.
Make academic science accessible
Finally, the debate must include a way to educate an American public that is relatively uninformed about the scientific process. For example, many people do not understand the nature of uncertainty, probabilities, and the standards of scientific proof.
Scientists will never be able to say with complete certainty that anthropogenic climate change is happening without a controlled experiment, one that requires another planet Earth. When it comes to understanding something as complex as the global climate, they will have to rely on the preponderance of evidence suggesting a prudent course.
Unfortunately, few academic scholars seem to possess the skills or inclination to play the role of educator to the general public. And given the level of vitriol, who can blame them? I and many of my colleagues are regular recipients of climate-skeptic hate mail and a few of us have even received death threats.
Despite such intimidation, we need another Carl Sagan, someone who can take complex scientific ideas and make them understandable to a lay audience. Unfortunately, whenever I mention this to my colleagues, the reply is derision: Sagan was a hack, a popularizer, and a lightweight. I see this as part of the arrogance of the academic community that has contributed to the mess we are in now.
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As the prevailing logic goes, scientists develop data, models, and conclusions and expect acceptance because their interests should not be questioned. But science is never socially or politically inert, and scientists have a duty to both recognize its impact on society and communicate that impact to those who must live with the consequences.