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It’s Time to Stop Portraying Climate Change as a ‘Debate’

It’s Time to Stop Portraying Climate Change as a ‘Debate’

The science forum on reddit, the self-described “front page of the Internet,” is now a climate change denial-free zone — which means it’s now a paradise.

OK, that might be overstating things. But the atmosphere of the science subreddit has improved remarkably since the moderators started cracking down. According to one of the forum’s moderators, nothing — not evolution, not vaccines — drew the kind of vitriol and ill-informed soliloquies as climate change:

Some issues, however, are particularly contentious. While evolution and vaccines do have their detractors, no topic consistently evokes such rude, uninformed, and outspoken opinions as climate change.

Instead of the reasoned and civil conversations that arise in most threads, when it came to climate change the comment sections became a battleground. Rather than making thoughtful arguments based on peer-reviewed science to refute man-made climate change, contrarians immediately resorted to aggressive behaviors. On one side, deniers accused any of the hard-working scientists whose research supported and furthered our understanding of man-made climate change of being bought by “Big Green.” On the other side, deniers were frequently insulted and accused of being paid to comment on reddit by “Big Oil.”

After repeated interactions with climate change deniers, the moderators of the science subreddit decided that they were not interested in having an informed debate. Instead, the climate change-deniers simply parroted talking points that even a novice could poke holes in:

As a scientist myself, it became clear to me that the contrarians were not capable of providing the science to support their “skepticism” on climate change. The evidence simply does not exist to justify continued denial that climate change is caused by humans and will be bad. There is always legitimate debate around the cutting edge of research, something we see regularly. But with climate change, science that has been established, constantly tested, and reaffirmed for decades was routinely called into question.

Over and over, solid peer-reviewed science was insulted as corrupt, while blog posts from fossil-fuel-funded groups were cited as objective fact. Worst of all, they didn’t even get the irony of quoting oil-funded blogs that called university scientists biased.

So the moderators decided to crack down on the most offensive posters. The effect was not a dampening of free speech, but a flourishing of scientific discussion with people who actually wanted to understand the evidence behind the claims. In fact, the moderators of the science forum found that it was only a handful of people making all the noise.

When newspapers and other publications portray the debate about climate change as a 50-50 split, they are misrepresenting what’s really going on. The truth is that 97 percent of climate scientists are in agreement: climate change is happening, it’s caused by humans, and the results will be bad for us.

How climate change is presented really is important. A recent study by the Royal Society of Arts found that, while only less than 20 percent of people in the UK denied climate change was happening, it simply didn’t bother most people.

Of that 64 percent — which the report calls “stealth deniers” — 47 percent were “emotional” deniers, meaning they don’t feel personally uneasy about climate change. Twenty-six percent of those people were “personal” deniers who believe their own daily actions are not part of the problem — and 65 percent are “practical” deniers, believing that there is literally “nothing I can do personally that will have any significant effect on limiting climate change.” Only a small group of the total amount of people surveyed, 14.5 percent, said they lived in a way that they felt was consistent with their understanding of the problem.

This is a definite problem, and feeding into that problem is the constant portrayal of climate change as a debate. Instead of focusing on whether or not a particular person or organization believes climate change is happening, we should be focusing on what can be done to stop it.

“At present, public debates focus around the question: do you believe in climate change? Instead we want them to ask: ‘What do you think we should do about climate change?’” the report said. While the authors also argue for the implementation of a national emissions measurement, increased investment in renewable technologies, and a revenue-neutral carbon tax, they also say that none of that can occur unless there is increased civil communication. That is, getting people to talk to each other about climate change for more than five minutes at a time.

We are well past the time when we should be debating the existence of climate change. We’re even past the time we should be debating potential solutions. But the latter debate needs to be had, and it needs to be had immediately.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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9:48PM PDT on May 21, 2014

Stop 1000 tons of CO2 emissions by saving acres of rainforest for the cost of a cup of coffee: https://www.rainforesttrust.org/acres-for-50cents/

3:26PM PST on Feb 26, 2014

Michael D.To be honest the science is settled. Global warming/climate change is happening. We have contributed. It does not matter how much or in what degree.

It is happening. That is reality.

The only conversation that we need is how to address this in a civilized manner. Not to be debating how much are humans responsible or even if we are responsible to any degree. That ship has sailed.

2:50PM PST on Feb 26, 2014

lets say (for arguments sake) that global warming is all fake. its all imagined. Would making the world a better, healthier place, just because, be just SOOO awful? If global warming were imagined (and its not) I guess we'd be making the Earth a better place all for nothing

5:25PM PST on Jan 21, 2014

First, it's important to not that the only serious divergence of opinion (i.e., coming from other actual climate scientists) is not over whether warming is occuring, and for the most part, not even over whether or not human activity is a factor. However, it seems reasonable to question, as some do, the degree of certaintly that we have over just how much of the warming is being caused by humas. Is it 10%? Is it 90%? And how can we be certain? These are questions that need to be seriously and publicly debated, because before the public is going to put pressure on governments to make changes that may in fact be needed to implement policy based on the mainstream view, they need to have confidence that the mainstream view is, in fact, correct.

Therefore, in my view, it does the "cause" of the mainstream no good to refuse to engage in debates. Nor does it do anygood for them (or more frequently, their supporters) to use perjorative words like "denier" and employ other clear hyperbole as a blatant attempt to silience reasonable skeptics by misrepresenting their viewpoints as something more extreme.

As an example, in the video below scientist Gavin Schmidt (representing the mainstream) at least agreed to appear and conducted himself well. But IMHO, it didn't make the mainstream view look credible that most of those invited refused to appear specifically based on some anti-debate mindset. And it certainly did not make Mr. Schmidt look more credible as he engaged in a chi

6:16PM PST on Jan 18, 2014

I totally agree!

2:48PM PST on Jan 10, 2014

Dan B. History is part of scholarly peer review. History in conjunction with archaeology is a science. With out peer reviewed papers and applying a scientific method to it. History would be meaningless and have no relationship to either the present or the future. Which would in simplest terms means that everything that happened before would not be able to account for why, who, and what happened then or today.

Today one would be able to say that the Purple People Eater was responsible and tomorrow it might be the Marvin the Martian.

11:42AM PST on Jan 10, 2014

Exactly! It is science! Whatever you believe it or not!

9:03PM PST on Jan 9, 2014

These people also founded the first true cities, each having 10,000 to 50,000 inhabitants. When a city became too large to be easily manageable, part of the population left to create a new city that could grow without constraint. This indicated definite urban planning, which even our modern city planners fail to do sometimes.

Cities were laid out in grids, with streets easing congestion between houses and buildings, and facilitating movement and commerce. Post-Sumerian cultures tended to sprawl haphazardly around a village-sized center.

Sumerian city centers were dominated by magnificent high-rise palaces and temples [ziggurats], which were built to exact specifications outlined in detailed architectural plans. City perimeters were walled for defense. Water was supplied by brilliant canal and aqueduct systems, and they had equally clever drainage and sewage disposal.

9:02PM PST on Jan 9, 2014

These people were much more advanced than the Jews were.

They were responsible for the first schools, a bicameral congress (consisting of two chambers), historians, pharmacopoeia, “farmer’s almanac,” cosmogony and cosmology, proverbs and sayings, literary debates, library catalogues, law codes and social reforms, medicine, and agriculture.


Their schools taught language and writing, as well as the sciences of the day—botany, zoology, geography, mathematics, astronomy, and theology. Literary works were studied and copied, and new ones were composed. The language itself was a marvel, with its “precise grammar and rich vocabulary.” Cuneiform, the world’s first writing, ultimately evolved into a very simple and efficient technique.


Sumerians also created an efficient system of mathematics based on the number 60 (called sexagesimal). It enabled them easily to divide into tiny fractions and to multiply with equal ease into the millions and to calculate roots and raise numbers by any power. The 60-second minute and 60-minute hour are two vestiges remaining from the original system. So are the 360-degree circle, the 12-inch foot, and the dozen.” [These measurements are still used by the U.S. and Great Britain.

8:56PM PST on Jan 9, 2014

Um, Carol. No

that isn't going to do it. It mentions a circle of the earth not a sphere or globe. And it is debatable whether or not these folks were writing as long ago as 1600 BCE.

As it happens, there are some folks called the Sumerians who were aware of our solar system in a much more significant way than your old testament claim.

They did their astronomical tracking using a complex method of spherical geometry, which postulated a round earth with an equator and poles. They knew Earth and the other 8 planets moved around the sun in a flat plane of an eliptic, which over the course of a year, resulted in gradual north-south shifts of sunrises and sunsets along Earth’s horizon, producing equinoxes and solstices. These sophisticated concepts are utilized by modern astronomers today in the same manner.

They are responsible for the 28 day lunar calendar. They knew that the asteroid belt separated the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars from the remaining planets, and they knew that there were rings around Saturn, this and their zodiacal constellation tradition were all known and fixed before c. 4000 BCE.

It is more likely that the Jews learned some information as it was passed on to other cultures by the Sumerians who had already done the work.

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