Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why Argue With Climate Change Deniers?

Recently on Twitter I engaged first the execrable Ezra Levant who had retweeted some obvious climate change denialist trolling to #cdnpoli (apparently the fact that it is cold at the coldest place on Earth in March is somehow proof that climate change is a lie) and later another persistent climate denier going off their current favourite talking point about how climate change has supposedly stopped for X years (X can be various things, but typically 14 or 15 years).  Two different climate realists asked why I even bother replying to these people, as it is clear that I'm not going to persuade hardened climate change denier ideologues just by posting the real science that they're so busy trying to confuse people about.

And they're not wrong: In the first case the person who had originally provided the oh-so-useful information about Antarctica being cold took quite ill to my calling it out as denialism (he has since deleted his sputtering rage-tweets), and proceeded to block me (Ezra Levant of course didn't reply).  The second played a frequent denialist tactic of changing the subject and refusing to ever get pinned down on their now revealed erroneous claims.  Classic textbook sophistry for anyone trying to muddle a debate.

So why even debate these people?  Is it just "someone-wrong-on-the-internet" egoism?

No, it has to do with my theory of change about Global Warming and understanding that the debate isn't about the direct participants, but about the passive audience.

Climate Beliefs Are Not Binary

The most important thing to realize is that a person's beliefs about climate change are not black or white.  You are not forced to choose between Al Gore and Christopher Monckton "extremes."  I had long understood there were a range of beliefs and recently came across (via Bill Moyers) some good empirical work by a Yale professor named Antohny Leiserowitz who leads a project on communicating climate science devised a taxonomy of six groups based on opinion research of Americans.  Here's what they found with the percentages as of fall 2012 (my chart using their categories):

The hardened human induced climate change denying activists I'm debating are of course in the 8% segment at the top.  It is of course very doubtful anything is going to move them from "dismissive" to "alarmed."  But what about the other 92% of the people?  Where are they?  They can easily move between "doubtful" and "disengaged" or from "concerned" to "cautious" depending on the news and information they receive.  Which category they're in has important public policy impacts on our ability to get government to act decisively on addressing the climate crisis.  For example here's a few of their findings on the beliefs of these subgroups:
  • In five of the six segments, larger proportions prefer to reduce, rather than increase fossil fuel use; only the Dismissive prefer to increase the nation’s use of fossil fuels.
  • In every segment except the Dismissive, half or more favor the elimination of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and oppose the elimination of subsidies to renewable energy companies.
  • Majorities of the Alarmed, Concerned and Cautious – comprising 70 percent of the U.S. population – say the U.S. should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what other nations do.
There are many other interesting break-downs like this where particular ameliorative policies that would at least slow the harm of our current climate trajectory become tolerated or even supported at supermajority levels within the United States, probably the nation subject to the worst climate denial propaganda and the least amount of accurate climate science interpretation.  We don't have to get to 100% in the alarmed group to get things done here, moving a few percentage of people from disengaged to cautious can make a difference in how they react to say, a carbon pricing policy proposal or the building of a giant new pipeline to more efficiently burn the world's second dirtiest oil (US DOE).  

Moderates Are Usually The Least Informed

All of this is concurrent with other political science research which shows that "moderates" on issues tend to be the least informed and engaged, so as a heuristic in the absence of well thought out opinions on the subject they opt for some kind of "middle of the road" approach.  These people, particularly in the middle two categories are persuadable.  If all they see when they're browsing twitter or other media is climate denier propaganda, they are more apt to gravitate up the scale above.  If they see climate denialism being aggressively and persuasively rebutted, they will at least go no higher and may drop down a category or two. 

Now there are still other problems to solve in acting on climate change, particularly in the US where hardened minority opinion groups have a death grip ability to veto policy they don't like via the preposterous US Senate, but we certainly aren't going to get action without more people in the alarmed and concerned categories where people are most apt to actually ask their government to take action.  The cautious and disengaged will generally go along with whatever, so moving the doubtful into those categories also serves to weaken the opposition to action.   In Canada, I am fairly convinced that during the 2008 Federal Election, the Conservative ad smear blitz against Stephane Dion's carbon tax proposal was quite effective in mobilizing the disengaged and doubtful into joining with the dismissive in heartily opposing any possible action on the climate that could have any cost for themselves.  You can probably get most people in the "disengaged" category to tell pollsters they think the world is warming and humans are the cause, but that's not enough to let them tolerate risk to their pocketbooks in the societal response.  

This is why we in the alarmed group must keep up the fight.  Who else will?  Even moving the concerned into alarmed is of value because it increases the critical mass of people demanding change.  You don't have to persuade the unpersuadable and irrational, but recognize that leaving them to shout unanswered will lead some to think they must be right since we're all so quiet about their egregious nonsense.


  1. "This is why we in the alarmed group must keep up the fight."

    Exactly right since your numbers have been reduced from 45% in 2009 to only 16% today. You don't want to give up your climate religion without a fight.


    1. Acceptance of scientific reality isn't a "religion." Everything I claim to believe I can back by empirical research. Can you say the same?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Are you the one residing in Mumbai and planning to relocate? The first thing runs in your mind is to find a perfect mover. You can find several Packers Movers In Mumbai. But the problem is to select one Relocation Services in Mumbai who really understands the worth of money and recognize the value of people. If you are in search of such transporters Mumbai, your search ends at the door steps of Indian Packers And Movers Mumbai licensed, insured and full service Packers And Movers In Mumbai.