Want to Win the Climate Debate? Stop Debating

December 29, 2013

By Lucy Emerson-Bell

[In early November] the Diane Rehm Show on NPR featured an episode on the natural gas boom in America. After panelists glorified the natural gas revolution, Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, chimed in by saying, “Nobody (on this panel) has mentioned climate change. What we should acknowledge is that production of oil and gas is undermining our goals to achieve a stabilized climate.”

As the topic of climate change becomes less and less popular and the accompanying eye-rolls become more common, Brune demonstrated a successful messaging tactic in communicating climate change. Talk about it! Be direct in your communication and make sure the topic isn’t left out of discussion. If only Salt-n-Pepa were around for a remake of their 1991 hit to “talk about climate baby, talk about you and me, talk about all the good things and the bad things that could be…”

Straight Talk and Other Tactics for Combating the Illusion of a “Debate”

In Brune’s statement, there was no room for doubt. He clearly and effectively states that oil and gas production is undermining climate stability. There were no disclaimers, apologies or innuendo. Just direct correlation. Climate change is not beating around the bush and nor should we.

Brune was inclusive as well, stating that it is “our” goal to achieve a stabilized climate. This begs the question of “Who doesn’t want a stabilized climate?”

Additionally, he was blunt. Brune exposed fellow panelists, acknowledging that he was the last panelist to speak about “The Changing World Energy Picture” and yet no one had addressed the elephant in the room: that America’s energy addiction has engendered an unstable and even potentially unlivable climate.

These messaging tactics are increasingly critical in combating the idea that climate change is an uncertainty. The notion of the “climate debate,” developed by PR experts, funded by special interests, was designed to combat rising public concern over climate change. Creating an illusion of a “debate” provided room for an opposition to counter the consensus. It undermined mounting evidence and created a sense of uncertainty where previously there was growing certainty.

In “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth About Climate Change,” Professor Naomi Oreskes, draws the correlation between the denial over climate change and the earlier denial over the dangers of cigarettes.

“For half a century, the tobacco industry… and those skeptical of acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming strove to ‘maintain the controversy’ and ‘keep the debate alive’ by fostering claims that were contrary to the mainstream of scientific evidence and expert judgment. We have seen how they promoted claims that had already been refuted in the scientific literature, and how the media became complicit as they reported the controversy as if it was a legitimate debate.”

The debate forms dueling sides, “us” versus “them,” “sane” versus “irrational,” and “disbelievers” versus “believers.” I cringe when perfectly well-intentioned individuals say that they “believe” in climate change. The term “belief” fits within the syntax of a “debate.” Climate change is not about belief. It is science, not religion. Would you say that you believe the sun will rise tomorrow? Would you say you believe in gravity?

Not only has this sense of uncertainty thwarted meaningful political action, it has lead even the most fervent activists to abandon the term in fear of seeming too extreme. The term “climate change” is loaded with emotional and political baggage and is immediately polarizing. I have colleagues working on carbon reduction projects who can’t talk about the reason driving their work, fearing it might seem “too contentious.”

Some claim that there are numerous reasons to act on climate change, i.e. cleaner air, energy security and that we don’t need to talk about the changing climate as the motivator for action. But neglecting to talk about climate change is what the deniers want. If we avoid using the term, they win.

Solutions Over Both Bullying and Debating

So how do we fix this? We don’t give into the bullying and we don’t debate. Even with the most convincing, peer-reviewed study, the time for talk is over. Sharing more data to further prove the case is a waste of time. The deniers do not care that 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is anthropogenic because only 97 percent of scientists agree, not 100 percent. Even with mass consensus, there are still those three percent and those three percent are key to legitimizing the debate.

Not only is it important to avoid engaging in debate, it is important to avoid name calling. The artist Shepard Fairy recently recommended that we call out deniers for what they are. “Sometimes the most powerful weapon against propaganda is absurdity, creating images that are funny.” He tells deniers to “just stop being dicks.” However, if debating is a waste of time, so is name-calling. Calling the deniers “dicks” would acknowledge their position and acknowledging them would imply that their opinion is justified.

If we want to achieve a stabilized climate we must focus on the solutions to climate change and appeal to the moral imperative for action. To succeed, we must do what Michael Brune did. We must talk about it, we must acknowledge it, we must be honest that our current energy production is undermining our collective goals for climate stability. And we must act.Φ

Lucy Emerson-Bell lives in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and works for the non-profit, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE).

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