How Not to Talk About Climate Politics


Photo: akeg, Flickr, CC BY-SA

Yesterday, I wondered aloud whether there was any way to steer the general conversation about climate change away from the realm of political ideology -- and the overwhelming response in the comments section left me even more bewildered than before. If anything, the response revealed that there is much work left to do to bring an even-keeled discussion about the science of climate change and potential solutions back to the fore. But one thing is for sure -- inflammatory name-calling is not the way to kick start fruitful conversation, as the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Cynthia Tucker surely knows by now. Her recent piece, "The GOP is now a party of know-nothing flat-earthers", was quick to elicit an angry response. The post was bombarded with hundreds of hostile comments. Here's her opening salvo:

One of the greatest crises of our time is climate change, which threatens to create food shortages (as the Russians learned this summer), change geography, eradicate entire eco-systems and even wipe out cities and towns in coastal areas. (NOTE: If you are an anti-science know-nothing, don't bother to comment. The clear scientific consensus indicates a warming climate caused by human activity.)

But we've reached the odd and depressing point in American politics where not a single Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate supports aggressive action to mitigate climate change. The last science literate, Delaware Congressman Mike Castle, was defeated by tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell.

The first sentence is entirely true. But rhetoric like that found in the second is bound only to anger climate skeptics -- and yes, move them to comment in a counterproductive manner -- and perhaps even irk people who are uncertain about climate change.

Most people who don't believe in climate science do so for political reasons rather than scientific ones, as I argued yesterday. Equating their political beliefs to flat-earth-ism is inflammatory, and counterproductive as well. Tucker continues:

Many others have simply chosen to be ignorant anti-science flat-earthers. Alaska's Joe Miller, who defeated incumbent Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary, is an example of the latter category. He told an Alaska newspaper, "We haven't heard there's man-made global warming." [Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 8/23/10]

Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson is in the more sophisticated category, too smart to deny the science outright but unwilling to buck a tide of flat-earth voters and selfish businesses that don't want to change their ways.

If anything, I can sympathize with Tucker (and I believe the points she makes are sound, despite the language) -- writing about the topic with the frequency that I do, it's beyond frustrating to see politicians buck hard science for political gain. But at this point, we're not doing the conversation any favors by ratcheting up the incendiary rhetoric -- it only serves to widen the divide between climate action proponents and skeptics of global warming, and conflate the science with politics.

Let's calm down a bit, dispense with the name-calling -- advice I'll try to take myself -- and see if we can return the debate to a rational level, now that federal climate policy is entirely out the window for at least a few years to come.

More on Climate Politics
California Senate Hopeful Mocks Climate Change Threat (Video)
Best and Worst of 2009: The Year in Climate Change Politics

Related Content on