Climate change denial and persuasion

Driving into the future

Driving into the future

Last night I caught a bit of Channel 4 news, on which Liz Hutchins (Friends of the Earth) and Nicolas Loris (Heritage Foundation – they’re climate change deniers) presented opposing views on Obama’s Clean Power Plan, with Loris suggesting it was: “all economic pain and very little environmental gain”.

Despite not being at all persuaded by climate change denial, and absolutely buying into the need for immediate action, I found Loris’ denialism more convincing.  Why?

The ‘debunking handbook‘ is a wonderful (free) resource on debunking misinformation, specifically around climate change.  What I found really interesting about this segment is it looks a lot like the Heritage Foundation have learnt from the debunking handbook, but I’m afraid it doesn’t look much like Friends of the Earth have. (NOTE: (1) this is not particularly my area of expertise, and (2) I think this is exceptionally hard to get right – I’m certainly not commenting on either individual here, I don’t know them or their organisations particularly well).

So, in the Ch4 piece, we see Loris (of Heritage) basically make the argument for “all economic pain no environmental gain” by:

  1. Shifting focus of discussion, noting the impact of higher cost on families and business, and making a kind of social justice claim around low income families who spend more on energy costs.
  2. Playing down the impact of the proposals, by suggesting the impact on temperature will be tiny
  3. Agreeing with climate change and the human role in it, but suggesting (a) we aren’t heading for catastrophic (b) there’s been no increase in temperature for 18 years and (c) reiterating (2) – so even if you think a and b are wrong, Obama’s plan won’t address them.
  4. Placing himself and deniers within the 97% of scientists who think climate change is happening, and reiterating (3a) & (3b), with a claim we’re not seeing catastrophic warming or increase in hurricanes, etc.
  5. Making another economic argument that the proposal will make it (financially) harder to tackle any of those problems (hurricanes, etc.) when they do come our way

This is clever. Loris isn’t positioning himself at an extreme (never mind that he is), and is trying to undermine some of the economic imperative for change (ignoring that the poor will be hit hardest by climate change, while the fossil fuel industry will potentially be hit hardest by regulation).  Rather than flat deny climate change, he’s acknowledging  it and downplaying its significance. I suspect many people will have been ‘softened’ to him by the first part, and remember the myth he presents as fact. The “even if you think this is a problem, Obama’s plan ain’t no solution” point reinforces this. All of this is building up to a wonderful twist on the issue of climate change: Playing to risk-management and insurance needs, this is a bad plan because it reduces our ability to respond to problems (never mind that those problems are more likely if we don’t implement the plan).

Hutchins (FotE) got to kick things off, with this line:

  1. The richest countries in the world are overwhelmingly responsible for climate change, and have the most need to tackle it. This is right politically, but doesn’t go far enough

Which is fine as far as it goes, although I’m not sure the “rich overwhelmingly responsible” bit wins over anyone new, and I’d probably emphasise the significance that Obama’s move will have at the negotiating table where global deals will be made.

Things are more interesting in rebuttal where Hutchins suggests:

  1. We shouldn’t listen to HF – (interrupted to note that they represent a rather sizeable political view in the US)
  2. This is all about the choices we want to make as a society and humanity. Are we going to tackle, shift from dirty energy like coal which is responsible for blighting lives of millions around the world, or are we going to move to clean renewable energy.
  3. Heritage Foundation is funded by fossil fuel industry of course they’re going to make the case for their vested interest.
  4. What we need to do is more to new sustainable future which is better for people and the economy.

Now I buy all of that. But who cares?  The HF conflict of interest is important, but only one point. The point on temperature rises wasn’t tackled, nor (most importantly) the catastrophic potential of climate change, now I understand time pressures, that you don’t want to overkill the science, or reinforce the myth through restatement, but Loris got away with positioning himself among the mainstream while denying the impact of climate change – that’s a problem! I also think the message on the political element and fossil fuels is problematic. I’m committed to a cleaner and fairer economy, but many people don’t see the connection. In fact, for many people this is a worldview-threatening claim, likely to increase resistance to any partnered assertions. There are good moral arguments for tackling climate change, but this is too hand-wavy. Ditto the “dirty energy” v “clean energy” issue – there are specific and serious concerns for example around the health impact of coal, and they’re the ones to raise.

As I said above, I really do think this is hard and I don’t want the job, but I think I’d go for a message along the lines of:

  1. HF have a conflict of interest
  2. The science is clear, we see a trend for rising global temperatures, and increase in extreme weather events (e.g.1, 2,3)
  3. We need to act now for politicians to build a global agreement, and reduce the global risks of fossil fuels, the health and environmental risks are catastrophic
  4. Carrying on as usual will not reduce our risk, a shift away from fossil fuels and to clean energy will

The idea is to aim to (1) counter Loris’ myth re: being mainstream, without reinforcing it (2) present clear counters to the specific issues Loris raised (although these lack detail), and (3) counter the risk-management proposition with an alternative one, which is reinforced by a moral (but specific, and factually based) claim (rather than a general worldview about us all needing to look out for one another – I buy it, some people don’t, you don’t need to persuade me).

I’ve thrown this together over coffee; I might be wrong, I think the video is an interesting case study to think about framing these messages – get in touch in comments or @sjgknight

Other resources

The debunking handbook (and site) is good, see:

Couple of other nice pieces:

  1. Washington Post piece, and think progress (commentary) piece on talking to a climate science denier
  2. nice guardian piece on convincing people about global warming
  3. short discovery mag bit

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