09 February 2011

Trying to Change a Climate Skeptic's Mind? Don't Bother

If I had a dollar for every time a self-proclaimed "climate hawk" or environmentalist said they had the key to convincing "climate skeptics," I'd create a pretty awesome adaptation and innovation fund that could invest in more worthwhile pursuits.

My good friends at The Nature Conservancy's Cool Green Science blog are usually pretty level-headed as far as environmentalists go. And today's post actually has some pretty good links and resources for information on the science of climate change.

Yet, the title sends the wrong message: "How to Change a Climate Skeptic's Mind."


I'm not convinced it's worth the effort. I also think there are three reasons the public doesn’t see eye-to-eye with scientists on climate change:

1.) People don't trust "Science," with a capital S.
2.) Environmentalists rely on fear as a motivator.
3.) The culture of NOW: climate change impacts are not immediate; concerns over health, safety, finances are immediate.

"Climate deniers" (I won't call them skeptics, for obvious reasons) are preying on all three points, just as good marketers will. They know how to hit home. The reaction from the so-called "climate hawks" is to promote the crisis with more panic.

And the climate scientists react with more...well, science.

What's wrong with this picture?

Fear is a good motivator when the danger is immediate. We've survived many encounters with predator species in our long evolution. Fear helps us respond to immediate threats – and quickly.

Over the long-term, however, fear breeds inertia. While the arguments continue, the climate changes, and we lose our share of the new economy. Nothing gets done.

As for the science, it needs to be simple, transparent, and backed up by real-life examples rather than datasets and models. People don’t respond to data and models, they respond to real, tangible things that touch their lives.

In his recent book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter opines that Americans mistrust institutions and especially the institution of science more today than ever before, believing that it's a political constituency that doesn't always have our best interests in mind.

We shouldn’t be talking about trying to "convince," but rather to trying to show. (Remember that old adage about showing not telling?)

Finally, the message must come from someone other than a liberal politician or member of the choir. It is too easy for people, the media, etc., to dismiss climate change and the environment as a "left issue."

It is a universal issue and will require a universal response.

I think Evan Girvetz, the blogger and a senior scientist with The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Program, was actually onto something with an earlier post called "Translating How Climate Change Will Impact Your Backyard."

At least that post brought the potential impacts closer to home.

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