Must the Climate Dialogue be Reduced to a Street Fight?

The downsides to a take-no-prisoners style of communication.

Those who closely follow online climate change discourse know that it feels like roller derby: Sharp elbowed players from opposing teams chase each other around in circles, trying to hip check one another into the stands. Round and round.

Or as scientist Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute puts it, “the debate over climate change often takes the form of ‘tit-for-tat’ blogs, conflicting commentary, and dogmatic ideological statements.”

Commentary
That debate is less about climate change and driven more by politics and personal vilification. Witness, for example, the torrents of hate mail sent to Kerry Emanuel of MIT and Katherine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University (see here and here), after conservative bloggers and pundits singled out the two climate scientists.

This latest bit of ugliness seems to confirm what Nature said in a 2010 editorial, that climate scientists had to realize “they are in a street fight.” Some have engaged in the call to battle, aggressively confronting what they see as unfair attacks. So have numerous others, who are pushing back with initiatives on the legal, educational and advocacy fronts.

Taken together, the intimidation tactics of climate science bashers and the new pressure campaigns, by allies of the concerned climate community, promise to, if nothing else, ratchet up the rhetoric of both sides and deepen the politicization of global warming. Just what the public discourse doesn’t need. Meanwhile, the conflict-loving media will eat it up and stoke the fires.

For climate campaigners and their adversaries, the escalating war of wits is a fait accompli. They are not constrained by how they might be perceived by the public at large. But the stakes are higher for the climate science community, which must defend itself against scurrilous attacks while staying above the fray. Not an easy balancing act. Nature, in a follow-up editorial in 2010, offered some constructive guidance:

This journal has already warned that climate scientists have to accept that they are in a street fight. They should expect a few low blows. The key is to learn which punches to roll with and which to block and counter.

That seems like a wise strategy, the kind that underlies some martial arts, such as Aikido and Tai Chi. Alas, many in the climate arena, on both ends of the spectrum, prefer a smashmouth style of fighting. That means every provocation is taken up, every quote is potential fodder, every action is open to being exploited for partisan advantage. This is especially the case in the climate blogosphere, where the tone is often shrill and insults are routinely traded. Most arguments, as climate scientist Simon Donner has observed are personalized and venomous:

Just as political pundits focus on political maneuvering rather than actual policy debates, many bloggers focus on bashing each other rather than discussing the issues. We do so because it appears that shouting is the best way to get heard. So just as cable news channels have trended towards the extremes and trumped-up scandals to capture the dwindling audience and dwindling advertising dollars, many bloggers end up focusing on the controversies rather than the consensus in part just to stay afloat in a crowded online sea.

The climate blogosphere, having established itself as part of the larger media ecosystem, could easily help improve the quality of the climate conversation. But only if a salon is able to replace the roller derby.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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30 Responses to Must the Climate Dialogue be Reduced to a Street Fight?

  1. Mary says:

    I wish that the “salon” model was effective, but that’s not what draws the discussion and the eyeballs. There are good sites quietly discussing many controversial science topics (and I would generalize this to most scientist vs activist/partisan battles, not just climate). But those don’t get the exposure or influence of the roller derbies.

  2. Gaythia Weis says:

    I think that this is a problem that currently affects public conversations overall. This is exemplified by our current political campaigns.

    Chris Mooney talks about our “gut feelings” and how they affect decision making, using evolution as an example. I don’t think that acknowledging the nature of our decision making processes, as given in the Daniel Kahneman book Mooney cites: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” needs to mean that we throw up our hands and go with the cheap and fast shot.

    Civilization is about enhancing rational behavior.

  3. keith Kloor says:

    Mary,

    You make a good point–one that I’ve made previously, too: that the hyperbolic extremes get most of the attention and drive the debate.

    Gaythia,

    Civilization hasn’t been around as long as the evolutionary processes that have shaped our decision-making.

  4. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    Am I missing something, or are you saying it’s inevitable that “the conflict-loving media will eat it up and stoke the fires”? That scientists must just learn to operate effectively in an environment where the press actively roller-derbifies everything? Your aikido comment suggests that we (we = activist climate scientists and allies) can’t avoid the street fight and must settle for learning to fight more effectively.

    If you’re saying that we should take as given that the media will “eat it up and stoke the fires,” then how does this fit with your longstanding arguments with many people on the activist and partisan part of the climate science spectrum regarding their condemnations of the press for “balance as bias”? This post reads as though you’ve suddenly decided that Tobis and Eli were right all along about “churnalism.”

    Your final sentence about replacing roller derby with a salon is utterly disconnected from what goes before. How shall we do this, and what is the role of the press in establishing a civil and constructive tone?

  5. Well of course. If it is words and logic and science – then we should certainly practice civility.

    But we cannot seem to get the climate and ocean to listen. And the first thing we learned is that destabilization is going to get worse. It progresses according to the rules of thermodynamics and chemistry. Toss your words there.

    The big question is: how much change do we want to make before the deadline?

    My question to you Keith is: are you asking us to just use words?

  6. Susan Anderson says:

    I have to ask why you assume the “sides” are equal on this. We did not choose this fight, and the phony skeptic movement, ably assisted by their wealthy friends, constantly develop tricks to discredit reality.

    Any attempt to be polite is instantly discredited. Any slight rudeness is immediately used to disqualify the person. Apparently the only people allowed to be rude are those trying to discredit almost all of science and history for political ends.

    I was a little startled a few years back to hear that the IPCC was in a worldwide scheme to institute communism, but while this meme used to be confined to the back room, it is now on every front page, and god help the person who dares to suggest it’s a bit extreme.

    I don’t think scientists should have to be publicists – they are busy enough already. It would help if the press, even the better and more thoughtful and experienced ones, didn’t buy so readily into the false middle and two sides to every question stuff, which gives false weight to material that is hardly credible.

  7. (ammending my comment)

    No, Keith, we should elevate the street-fight to an all out war of survival.
    Which is what it is. You are politely asking the world to ignore the alarms of science that tell us this now is the last moment which we can effect change.

    Because the science predicts quite a violent future with all the horrors of a huge war. Descriptions exceed any world war – heat, starvation, climate refugee
    flooding, disease.

    This sounds to me like your are shooting the messengers – scientists. I am irked that scientists have been far too placid and calm in speaking up.

    You seem to be asking us to accept defeat, and you ask us to learn suffering.

    To me, it seems like you are perpetuating the age of the last minute plunder before the demise.

    Do you doubt there will be 3 to 6 feet of sea level rise before the year 2100? (within 2 or 3 generations)

    Do you doubt there will be 3 to 6 degrees C of average temperature rise? (3 challenges civilization, 6 challenges human species.)

    Do you realize that AGW change will be continuing long past 2100?

    What is the appropriate communication that should precede this devastation?

  8. keith Kloor says:

    Jonathan,

    I think you are indeed “missing something,” or at least misinterpreting my post. When I refer to the “conflict-loving media,” I’m saying that people yelling at each other, calling each other names, etc, etc, is what gets reported, because conflict and controversy is what journalists report on. I don’t see that as being “churnalist.”

    My Akido reference plays off the quote from the second Nature editorial I cite, where the recommendation is made that climate scientists should pick their battles prudently.

    I’m also not seeing the disconnect you infer. The mainstream press reports the climate-related news (latest studies, polls, weather disasters, etc). It also covers the endless controversies when there’s a new wrinkle, such as Muller and BEST, or Gore unveiling a new initiative, publishing a critical article in a major magazine, and so on.

    But the day to day public dialogue is largely carried on by blogs and opinion pieces published online. And that conversation is dominated by those who are trying to get the upper hand in the public relations/political battle.

  9. Gaythia Weis says:

    I think that “civil” is a higher evolved brain response form than “street fight” and well worth long term effort to attain and maintain.

    History does demonstrate that human connection to civilization is tenuous. Richard Pauli is right that neglecting to address the effects of climate change also carries great risk to the structures of civilization. I agree with Jonathan Gilligan on the need to find a constructive way forward.

    I’d also like to see your response to the post by Simon Donner: http://simondonner.blogspot.com/2012/01/rolling-with-punches.html

    As an analogy: a considerable amount of bioengineering has gone into creating snacks such as chips and sodas that really do manage to connect to the parts of our brain that say “Yummy, gimmie more”. Just because there is a considerable amount of science behind knowing how to stoke this basic response doesn’t make it something that ought to be enhanced or even enabled. Good nutrition takes more planing and more time. And the will to block that impulse to reach for the Doritos. Getting others to forgo the Doritos takes both a knowledge of why they are so appealing and a willingness to put forth the effort to convince people to take steps beyond that.

  10. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    Richard Pauli.

    Consider Gandhi’s observation that “whilst all our activities should be zealously continued, there should be the greatest restraint exercised and every trace of violence or discourtesy avoided. When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible.When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible.” (Young India, Jan 19, 1922).

    • willard says:

      The closest approximation for Gandhi’s quote in climate blogland would be Bart:

      http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/

      That he practices a martial art might be a spurrious correlation.

      ***

      In my opinion, most kinds of exchanges have their niches. What matters is the possibility to find quieter places from time to time. This need does not preclude wishes for action once in a while: even Jonathan Gilligan appears at Junior’s.

  11. Susan Anderson says:

    It is hard to present the undoubted facts Pauli did without getting angry. It is hard to understand why everyone is not enraged at our passiveness in the face of almost certain disaster. Arguing “tactics” is more than too late, it is foolish. Arguing about who is polite is beside the point. We’ve tried that, and it gets nowhere. I think a bit of honest anger about our will to do nothing is entirely on point.

  12. Susan Anderson says:

    The claim that the press reports the facts is superficially true but what we are complaining about is more subtle – the weight and pandering to an audience that prefers spectacle and distraction, and criticizing scientists for doing their jobs. They work hard, and underwent decades of training and hard work – more than almost anyone else – to do their jobs. It is not easy to complete the education to do the work in the first place – only the hardest working and best thinkers can stay the course. Suggesting they remake their personalities and go back to school for PR is burking the real question – why are we all so unwilling to fact the facts?

  13. keith Kloor says:

    Gaythia,

    I thought Simon Donner’s post was thoughtful. I admire his style (and often the content on his blog) for the same reasons I admire people like Jonathan Gilligan and Bart Verheggen (http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/)

    These are the folks that I strive to emulate (along with journalists like Andy Revkin) in my approach to climate change issues.

    I should point out that I’ve repeatedly explored this theme (how to have a civil, substantive climate dialogue) at my own site. For example, look at this interview I did with Bart and Lucia a few years back:

    http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2010/06/14/our-uncivil-climate-debate/

  14. harrywr2 says:

    many bloggers end up focusing on the controversies rather than the consensus in part just to stay afloat in a crowded online sea

    Aww…the draw of being ‘popular’.

    I used to have a blog covering national security matters…30 hits a day is all I got. One from moscow, one from Herndon Virginia, one from Beijing…a few hits thru anonymous servers in finland. Then maybe a dozen hits from people I actually know.

    In blogging one has to decide what audience matters.

  15. Matt Skaggs says:

    All sorts of academic disagreements resemble street fights, mostly out of the glare of the media. There is a strong correlation to fields that study complex and poorly understood subjects such as tectonics, psychology, climate and the human brain. Climate science is constrained by an inability to perform controlled experiments that adequately mimic the complexity. The claim that we have cancelled the next Ice Age is an extraordinary claim (to say the least!), and the skeptic’s motto is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This is a high bar for a discipline that lacks the ability to perform controlled experiments. Climate science simply lacks the tools to make meaningful predictions more than a few months out. The embattled nature of climate science was absolutely inevitable from the first day someone wrote “the science is settled.”

  16. Dan Kahan says:

    Well put.

    Another Nature editorial from Jan. 21, 2010 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7279/full/463269a.html) is also quite pertinent:

    “No matter how evident climate change becomes, however, other factors will ultimately determine whether the public accepts the facts. Empirical evidence shows that people tend to react to reports on issues such as climate change according to their personal values. Those who favour individualism over egalitarianism are more likely to reject evidence of climate change and calls to restrict emissions. And the messenger matters perhaps just as much as the message. People have more trust in experts — and scientists — when they sense that the speaker shares their values. The climate-research community would thus do well to use a diverse set of voices, from different backgrounds, when communicating with policy-makers and the public. And scientists should be careful not to disparage those on the other side of a debate: a respectful tone makes it easier for people to change their minds if they share something in common with that other side.

    “As comforting as it may be to think that the best evidence will eventually convince the public on its own, climate scientists can no longer afford to make that naive assumption: people consider many factors beyond facts when making decisions. Even as climate science advances, it will be just as important to invest in research on how best to communicate environmental risks. Otherwise scientific knowledge will not have the role that it should in the shaping of public policy.”

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7279/full/463269a.html

  17. Matt Skaggs says:

    Dan Kahan quoted:
    “Empirical evidence shows that people tend to react to reports on issues such as climate change according to their personal values.”

    Not that this was pointed at me, but I, for one, fit in that square hole like a round peg. My political views are distinctly socialist, and I am a staunch environmentalist. I believe sustainability is a moral imperative, and the sooner we wean ourselves from oil the better. But I am also a skeptic of anthropogenic global warming. I have read most of the landmark papers on both sides of the debate, and even done some of my own research, and I find the evidence well short of “extraordinary proof.” In my view, the truly important issues of fishery depletion and habitat loss have been sidelined by the overwrought climate debate.

    • Sorry Matt, but anthropogenecis is pretty well established from many different approaches – from chemical (carbon14 vs carbon13) to statistical. Try http://www.skepticalscience.com/ or reading some Weart.

      It is not proper to just declare that you have “read landmark papers” – Hey I went into a bookstore and pulled a book from the first shelf and one from the last shelf – but I cannot say I know everything in between. You have to name names… because I have yet to read any different explanation for CO2 rise than anthropogenic. Not saying you haven’t, we just need to know what you are referring to.

  18. EdG says:

    Keith,

    Your link to the Hayhoe story predictably includes absolutely no substantiation of this bogus “hate mail” story except this: “She’s been receiving loads of hate mail ever since.”

    Such convenient hearsay is not credible. If she has received any “hate mail” then why hasn’t any of it been published anywhere? Or are we just supposed to believe her?

    Victim act.

    In other words, the whole premise of your column is unsubstantiated fluff.

    But in the meantime, we do have documented records – Climategate emails – of the AGW Team very deliberately employing the lowest tricks imaginable to suppress alternate views.

  19. keith Kloor says:

    Ed G,

    Lots of people in the public eye receive hate mail. Given the rancorous, politicized nature of the climate debate, I don’t find it unusual that climate scientists are on the receiving end, especially after some of them are specifically targeted by the likes of Morano and Limbaugh.

    As for Katharine Hayhoe, given her religious background and her non-confrontational manner, the hate mail is especially jarring. You can choose to believer her or not. But in her own words, here is how it has affected her: http://www.rtcc.org/policy/katharine-hayhoe-qa-climate-scientists-in-usa-under-attack/

  20. EdG says:

    Keith,

    I have been following the Hayhoe story for a long time. Based on her track record, I have no reason to believe anything she says.

    Her religious background is irrelevant except that it made her more prone to become the AGW missionary that she is.

    As for this “hate mail” story, to paraphrase Clinton, I suppose that all depends on what your definition of “hate mail” is.

    If one wanted to play victim that could be anything less than fawning.

    Bottom line, her story is not substantiated by anything except what she claims. Zero evidence.

  21. Barry Woods says:

    One example of Katie Hayhoe’s hate mail..
    [link to obscene and highly objectionable e-mail deleted here at discretion of Yale Forum editor]

    Hateful enough for everybody?

    And I challenge anybody to justify it.. on the Subject Title alone.
    If anyone does indeed try to justify it, then I pity them

    Whilst I disagree with a lot of what Katie says about climate change.
    Having a civil adult conversation seems to be impossible in the USA, the extremes on all sides get all the ‘lovely’ media attention.

    Why do not journalists simply ignore Marc Morano’s of this world.. he needs the oxygen of publicity, as much as those who would shout ‘anti-science denier’ at me…rather than actual answer any questions. A civil conversation /discussion would just sideline those people into obscurity..

    But of cousre, the media, choose the stories they want to report, a nice polarised viscious debate is worth so much more to the media, than say a detailed analysis of ‘hide the decline’, or a serious look into Mcintyre work, or ask why no critics of those, who were ‘exonerated in enquiries’ were even asked any questions or had thoier criticisms adressed..

    the laughable, well we did not actually ask Phil Jones, whether he deleted emails, bcos if we did he might incriminate himself.. Not the most robust enquiry a talented investigative journalist might think.. and dig some more.

    No the media choose the stories, play the game for their own interests it seems.

    • Bud Ward says:

      Comments getting deeply personal and offensive and flat-out obscene — and links to same — are inadmissible on this site, at the discretion of the Editor. This thread is getting perilously close to this point, and deletion of the link provided in this case was necessary to prevent going over that abyss. As for “ignoring the Marc Moranos of this world….” many of us are under the impression that that is indeed what the responsible news media do and have been doing for some time. And will continue to do, one can only hope.

    • EdG says:

      Barry Woods,

      I did not see that link as it has been deleted.

      Given the net I would not be surprised if there are a few wackos sending nasty emails to ALL sides of this, and i would assume that those who choose to get involved with this would simply accept that reality. But this is not the first time this ‘hate mail’ story has come up, always from one side, so methinks it is much ado about nothing… except to gain public sympathy.

      In the meantime, the truly significant emails are among the Climategate releases, which show the deliberate conspiracy to suppress the scientific process, not to mention efforts to have critics fired.

      • Bud Ward says:

        EdG: Are there instances you can point to of “hate mail” directed to, for lack of a better term, climate “skeptics”? You suggest so in pointing to the issue’s having come “always from one side.” If there are such instances, I think
        many in the media would like to know more about them. I suppose I’ll mention too that your enthusiasm over the significance of the hacked e-mail releases runs counter to the reactions of many impartial observers and analysts
        of those same e-mails…but you may already know that. Thanks.

        • EdG says:

          The significance of the Climategate emails is evident in the decline of public belief in the AGW issue since they were released.

          What some people choose to believe about their impacts is irrelevant. What matters are the real world effects.

          As for ‘hate mail’ directed at skeptics, you are welcome to do your own homework. As far as I am concerned, the deliberate choice of the word ‘denier’ was/is all the evidence anyone needs of what has been thrown at those who do not accept the AGW story. It also reveals that their argument has nothing to do with science.

    • Barry Woods says:

      I do hope that no-one thinks I was being highly objectionable..

      The link was to where Katie Hayhoe herself, had published, one of the hate mails she had recieved. If people are accusing Katie of not actually recieving(what I think is highly abusive, vile and threatening emails) emails of this nature

      I do think this link should be reconsidered for viewing..(with a warning) without evidence the discussion/debate becomes pointless.

      Why not check with Katie Hayhoe.

  22. JD Ohio says:

    This article is a classic of the pot calling the kettle black. Advocates for drastic cuts in CO2 live in a bubble of uninformed self-righteousness. Peter Gleick who called the book a “The Delinquent Teenager” “a stunning compilation of lies, misrepresentations, and falsehoods about the fundamental science of climate change” and failed to back up any of his claims is now worried about dogmatic ideological statements and the tone of the debate. See link http://www.amazon.com/review/R3DB7LHRMJ14G5 The height of hypocrisy.

    James Hansen would, in violation of international and U.S. constitutional law, jail energy executives. Paul Krugman has said that climate realists engage in traitorous behavior. The responsibility for the rancorous debate begins with CO2 advocates and until they modify their behavior and vitriol, the rancorous debate will continue. There is a substantial responsibility for the rancor attributable to those taking the climate realist position, but to make any progress on the issue those in the Hansenite camp have to acknowledge their responsibility, which never happens. Quoting Peter Gleick on this issue, who is one of the worst offenders in this arena, is perfectly illustrative of the lack of understanding and responsibility on the part of those seeking CO2 reductions.

    JD

  23. Jay Currie says:

    The biggest problem in climate science communication is that the warmists are having to watch the wheels fall off their models and predictions. Temps not rising says Met and UEA. They don’t like it.

    And they don’t like the fact that non-Team scientists are getting in the media.

    And they don’t like the fact that the Climategate emails make the Team look awful.

    And they don’t like the fact that the public’s worry about Global Warming/Climate Change has largely disappeared and with it the political will to “do something” about CO2.

    Like most people, warmists hate being proven wrong and being shown to have misbehaved.

    However, the tried and true tactics of people like Joe Rohm and Real Climate are no longer working. Those tactics are too shrill, too certain in the face of growing uncertainty.

    Not that it actually matters very much: 15 years of no warming has already proven to all but the deadenders that the models upon which the CO2 panic has been based are not very good. Five more years of no warming or even cooling (which the reversed PDO and likely reversal of the ADO are likely to bring on) will ensure that those models will have to be entirely discarded rather than merely reworked.

    And when these models are junked, the models of dire climate change consequences based on those junked models will have to be junked as well.

    A “communications strategy” is not going to redeem the scientific failure which much of climate science is quickly becoming.