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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