Is That a Fact? The Case for Abandoning Climate Change Deniers

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Environmentalists spend a lot of time discussing the best way to change the minds of the 82% of Americans who do not consider themselves green. The most-discussed techniques are those that focus on adapting the language and arguments to what the audience cares about the most. If you start with the Dark Green environmentalists and gradually fade to the light greens, the messaging shifts from treehugging to babyhugging, though the takeaway is the same—make lifestyle changes that reduce your use of fossil fuels, or else.

We learned years ago not to use the words “global warming” because a warming planet is a far-off concern for most people, whose interests radiate outward from the hot center like concentric circles, starting with themselves in the middle and growing outward to encompass family, job, house, neighborhood, extended family, “future generations,” others in their socioeconomic cohort, gas prices, retail prices, national security, interest rates, when Mad Men is going to start again, and then, possibly, the environment—but only if environmental action doesn’t cost more or require a separate trip. In fact, while nearly a third of people say environmental factors are important when weighing which products to buy, retailers and marketing execs have long known that people will choose green products only if they cost exactly the same and don’t require bending over to find them. And even then, green products account for a slimming sliver of sales.

Communications people, and to a lesser extent journalists, are always talking about ways of making environmentalism sexy to an increasingly bored and skeptical public. Despite our increasing efforts, the number of people who believe that climate change is happening has actually dropped over the last few years, from 72% in 2008 to 58% in 2010. So what has changed? Countless studies have been released that enumerate in grim detail our morphing planet, and first-time-in-recorded-history weather patterns would seem to reinforce this longstanding consensus in the scientific community. And yet, the ranks of skeptics has bloomed. (They’re especially skeptical of climate change during cold weather—recent record snowstorms caused respondents in a Yale survey to question the reality of climate change based on what they saw out their window.)

But do we need these climate-change deniers on our side at all? If you place a red apple in a man’s hand, and he continues to insist his hand is empty, how much effort do you expend convincing him? In my line of work, we appeal to facts. But I am told that a reliance on facts to form opinions is not the way many people think, and those who live comfortably with their beliefs do not feel the logical strain of placing their full faith in science on the one hand (pharmaceuticals, GPS, voyages to the moon, iPads) while deftly excising the inconvenient parts (climate change, dwindling fossil fuels, toxic pollution) from their belief system. Decision-making isn’t about weighing the facts to find truth or trusting the experts—instead truth is “truth,” a complex amalgam of cultural biases, linguistic differences, swooning narratives, and frames of reference.

As non-scientists, we can be much more confident in our beliefs in part because they are so rarely challenged. We listen to talk radio that we agree with, watch TV shows that reinforce our beliefs, and have friends that share our interests, background, and rough socioeconomic level. The advantage of having a thousand channels at our fingertips is that we can avoid alternate perspectives so completely that eventually, like the tree falling in the forest, we may forget they exist. And so we speak often of certainties and absolutes, something scientists do not. This is where we run into trouble. I am as certain of climate change as I am of evolution or gravity, and yet both are referred to as theories by scientists. Maddeningly, scientists continue to speak of likelihoods, not certainties. Ranges of probabilities, not absolutes. Because of this perceived uncertainty, laypeople act like terminal patients who have just been given a month to live, wildly overestimating the margin of error and grasping at small discrepancies in the data that scientists freely admit to and refuse to completely discount. We cling to this rounding error and declare the issue still debatable. When the scientists have gone back to work, we are left with our own interpretations and “points of view.”

But my point of view is irrelevant. I have absolutely no scientific background or training, so I bristle a bit when asked to make up my own mind about climate change. I am not a scientist, which is why I defer to experts on matters of science. I will gladly offer my opinion about chocolate vs. vanilla, but since I have never taken a core sample of paleolithic ice in Antarctica or measured albedo in higher-latitude forests myself, I defer to the scientific establishment, which, say what you will about the practical drawbacks of peer review, does not suffer from a lack of rigor. Incorrect conclusions don’t stay uncorrected for long. Scientists tend to keep each other accurate and apolitical.

Who’s to blame? Ourselves first, for choosing to bury ourselves in a warm cocoon of ideology that acts as a kind of sensory-deprivation chamber, insulating us from the harsh and ever-shifting winds of data whistling ominously around and under us. But the press must also assume some responsibility, for reporting loudly on minor, and often routine, disagreements among scientists in an effort to appear balanced. The result is a windfall for marginal views trying to be heard. If three percent of researchers disagree with the other ninety-seven percent (as is the case in climate science), they often get the headline and half the coverage—an arrangement that draws eyeballs, perhaps, but is ultimately dishonest. Journalism is hard, but the profession has no licensing program. And with no way left to pay for itself, we are left with decimated newsrooms emptied of reporters who once successfully navigated ethical minefields, and thousands of allaboutme.blogspot.commers who show up routinely in news aggregators, much to their own delight. (And yet the vast majority of twittered links [requisite mention of social media, check] are to traditional media.)

And so I ask, should we keep trying to convince the unbelievers? A survey from Public Agenda found that over half of Americans couldn’t correctly identify a renewable energy source like wind or solar and 39 percent couldn’t name a fossil fuel. Never mind the renewable energy—over a third of Americans scratched their heads, thought for a moment, and still couldn’t answer “gas”? If so many Americans are unaware that petroleum products power their lives and bring them every single object they eat, sit on, wear, drive, or watch, it might be too much to teach them why we need alternatives to this magical mystery fuel. I am fully committed to abandoning the losing fight of trying to “re-frame the science” or “tell the story” in a way that appeals to this unreachable minority. Imagine all the time we’ll save if we can stop spinning the importance of clean energy and reduced fossil fuel use into personalized just-for-you narratives that resemble nothing more than patronizing versions of Mad Libs: “If you care about your family and its health, you should buy renewable energy and ride a bike because your neighbor is doing it too!” Focusing on solving problems is a much better use of our time, and it will eliminate the scattershot and ultimately futile approach to finding Messaging That Works.

This does not mean we stop educating people about the importance of environmental action—in fact we have barely begun that task. I’m proposing instead abandoning those who have seen the evidence, know the issues exist, but still deny that climate change is happening and that we are the cause. Those without a scientific background who say they do not “believe” in something accepted as fact in the scientific community deserve to be left at a windswept crossroads with their hunched forebears still carrying on about geocentrism, phrenology, astrology, and the flat earth. I imagine it is a lonely place, and am amazed that each generation produces willing representatives of the pseudoscientific fringe to send there, but once again, here we are. They may say whatever they wish, but science is always right in the end. And it brings pictures.

There will always be those with entrenched views, who through ideology or inertia can’t or won’t see the story in the numbers. Instead of expending our energy trying to get them to see the apple in their hand, I propose we abandon them to their beliefs, and instead focus on advancing the science about our effect on the planet, and the technological and policy solutions that can bring us back into alignment. It’s important not just for the planet, after all, but for the health and financial well-being of you, your family, and future generations.