How We’ve Botched the Climate Change Narrative

I went to a Story Circles workshop and the author pontificated on how we’ve screwed up the climate change narrative, from “An Inconvenient Truth” onward. I can’t help but think he’s right, and it’s something I keep coming back to in my mind, so I figured I’d write a little about my experience with it. Like perhaps most people, my first big introduction to climate change was via “An Inconvenient Truth.” I saw “An Inconvenient Truth” for free, after I did some promo for it outside of a local theater in Roanoke, VA as an undergrad. I was still a physics major at the time, but I’d always cared about the environment, and my goal if I stayed in physics was to work in the energy sector. (I’m still quite passionate about clean energy, and if I could truly choose to do whatever I wanted, I’d probably open a solar company!) I thought it was a great movie, and had no problem with the science in it.

Afterward, I heard about how it came under attack in classrooms, and how some of Al Gore’s claims may have been exaggerated. I found out that if it was shared in classrooms, it had to be shared with certain caveats. Still believing in climate change, I wondered what was true and what wasn’t, but since this was the most extensive thing I’d seen about climate change in my life to that point, I was a little disheartened. I thought what many people may have thought when the criticisms started coming out: “Is this movie trustworthy? Is this true, or is it just another lazy, loose stringing of facts for the sake of sensationalism?” Luckily, I still cared about the topic, though not as much as I would come to when I became a biology major.

I was lucky: I was a scientist who cared about the environment. Many people who saw that movie were maybe the latter, but those who saw it with just a passing curiosity could likely have had their introduction to the topic blown. Those who were skeptics had their fires fueled.

There was another problem of this being tackled by a polarizing political figure: the message became that this was a “liberal issue.” It was presented to us by someone with a definitive political slant, so did it ever have a shot of reaching the hardcore conservative audience? (I’ll add that I still considered myself a republican at the time, when I thought I had to choose a mainstream political party! Again, I was lucky in that sense to be able to hear the message because I was a scientist!) The conservatives were immediately out for blood against the person, not necessarily the idea.

Following from the information being presented according to party affiliation, I think the main problem became this: the information became seemingly inextricably attached to certain political steps to solve it (e.g., “now the federal government needs to do something”). Since it was a new topic of import to the public and political arena (though far from new to science), and plans to address the problem at a large scale were still in their infancy, I think it became more convenient for a certain segment of the population to attack the veracity of what was to them new information. They nitpicked where they could, operating from a place of wanting to preserve their beliefs instead of exploring new information (as actually most of us do). Related, but not the same: big businesses (oil, coal) were threatened by the proposed solutions to climate change, so they threw money at the problem. This resulted in an institute to disseminate information contrary to the climate change narrative.

I can’t stress enough how damaging the attachment of politics was to the climate science narrative, and “climate denial” isn’t limited to the uneducated. I had a very smart engineer friend in undergrad who, in the wake of “Al Gore’s testimony,” did not believe in climate change. He’s a notable skeptic of most things, and I don’t mean that necessarily in a bad way. He’s rigorous about pursuing ideas to their very ends, and just “didn’t buy it.” Though he came up with reasons, I’d be inclined to guess the aversion was based in politics. (As a disclaimer, he might believe in climate change now, but I’m not sure; I haven’t talked to him about it in a long time.) Our mutual buddy, Ron Paul, does not. It was a sad day that I had to “un-follow him” because of the climate denial posts. Unfortunately, mainstream libertarian platforms (did you know  there was such a thing? 😉 ) also include climate denial, as an answer to what liberals want to do about climate change.

Therein lies the problem: I do believe that much of the backlash against climate change has instead been rooted in what political parties want to do about it, not about the science itself. This fighting has unfortunately led to widespread dissemination of bad and confusing information by political leaders and businesses alike, who have a lot of money and a lot of airtime. The most damaging blow to the public opinion of climate science, I believe, has to do with previous climatic changes from other eras in Earth’s history. That’s the firmest stone that deniers will stand on, and is a stumbling block to those genuinely seeking information.

I won’t answer that here, though it’s tempting: there are many other sources who have thoroughly explored this topic and devoted entire articles, webpages, info-graphics, etc. to explaining it better. I will say this: I would bet that many scientists, besides geologists, climate scientists, and/or planetary scientists don’t know the answer well, and would be hard-pressed to explain it in a barroom debate. You’d need to draw on a napkin to explain it well, and back up to explain to them some simple dynamics of how our earth works and what its movements mean for solar radiation forcing. You’d basically have to go back and explain how seasons work (I’d bet the average person couldn’t answer that well).

My point there is we also have to be aware of our own ignorance, and not assume that just because “science backs it up” that we personally know the topic better than we do. This could damage our own conversations with others who are “on the other side of the fence,” if we don’t admit our own knowledge gaps and instead choose a debate with a winner and a loser over a conversation to mutually further understanding. If your goal is to communicate about climate change to someone else, first learn as much as you can about it, including asking yourself the mechanistic questions along the way (i.e. “how does this work?”). Still, once you enter the conversation, be confident in your knowledge but also aware that the other person might have a question you can’t answer. In the end, you’re both just human beings looking for answers, so try to remember to approach tough topics from that perspective. Maybe then, we can start to change the dialogue, and from there maybe collectively, the narrative of climate change.

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