Getting past climate denial

This has been a seminal week both in the readings for this class and climate-related activities outside of class.  With everything said and done, I’m starting to sort all these experiences into two camps: The climate denial problem, and possible solutions.

The climate denial problem is well covered in papers by McCright, Boykoff, and Freudenberg.  I was most interested in the McCright paper, which uses concept from the study of social movements – framing, mobilizing, and political opportunity structure – to analyze the success of the climate countermovement in stopping the Kyoto protocol in 1994.  This paper is from 2003 and looks at conservative think tanks, congressional hearings, and news media coverage from 1990-97.  I did not realize until I read this how far back the roots of this countermovement go.

McCright makes a great case about how these conservative think tanks used the political opportunity of the Republican Congress elected in 1994 to mobilize the countermovement and neutralize the problem of climate change that scientists had already reached consensus on.  In short, in a direct contest between climate science and ideology, science got its pants beat off.

I feel like only now are scientists, with the help of social scientists and communicators, starting to get their footing to fight back.  This is where the solutions come in, and the paper by Groffman et al describe how to communicate science in a way people will understand.  It is not a question of a knowledge deficit – that has been clearly established by both research and events.  It is a question of framing, public engagement, and appealing to an innate sense of purpose and meaning.  The Groffman paper gives some good ways to do that, but we need more.

Personally, I am fascinated by the story of how corporate interests managed to frame and manipulate information so as to win such a long delay on climate action.  Oreskes and Conway demonstrate in Merchants of Doubt that these tactics trace back to the tobacco wars and have been going ever since.  But simply being aware of this manipulation is not enough.  We have to get beyond it to get to climate solutions, and we don’t have much time.  So we need solutions, and we need them now.  Framing climate change as an energy problem that provides an opportunity for economic growth, as a public health issue, as a national security concern, and as a question of morality and ethics of environmental stewardship are all good options.

This week on campus I saw Katharine Hayhoe speak Sunday night.  I asked her what to do about the political polarization that has come to define this issue.  She thinks climate denial is not based on the science but on fear – fear of the solutions.  That goes along with the conservative think tanks (and my climate denier at MCL) afraid of big government programs to address climate change.  But big government doesn’t have to be the solution.  Fueling economic growth, reducing risks to public health, and not propping up foreign oil regimes ought to be things that all Americans can agree on.  And Katharine pointed out that if we let the climate get to a crisis point, that is when big government will intervene, and we end up with what we fear most.

This week we also have an event tomorrow on climate change and national security, and we saw the release of another report from the Pentagon stating that climate change is an immediate national security threat.  Yet on Friday we have coming to campus the granddaddy of climate change denial himself, S. Fred Singer.  I hope to squeeze in that event between all my other obligations this week to see how it goes.  Last time he was on campus, he got a hostile reception.  I hope this time it’s either hostile or completely ignored.  It’s way past time for people like Singer to get off the stage.  We need solutions, not more misinformation and dithering.