Why being right is not enough for climate researchers

Posted on 20 Apr 2018 in

Climate change researchers need to improve their public debating skills. That was my take-away message for the audience last week at a special event on ‘Exploring Science Denialism in HIV/AIDS, Vaccines and Climate Change’.

The panel discussion accompanied the launch of an excellent new exhibition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and explored the main themes and common features of the denial of health and environmental risks.

You can watch a video recording of the event. I presented a brief history of my battles with climate change deniers over the past 20 years, starting with my skirmishes with ExxonMobil at the Royal Society, and ending with my most recent conflicts with the so-called ‘lukewarmers’.

There is now an enormous amount of scientific evidence, gathered over the past 200 years, showing that the Earth’s climate is warming and changing in response to rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from human activities. Every reputable scientific organisation in the world, including the Royal Societyand other national science academies, agrees that climate change is happening, is driven by human activities, and could have very severe impacts.

Yet significant parts of the public and policy-makers still do not entirely accept the scientific evidence, at least partly because of a campaign of misinformation by a small number of climate change deniers, particularly in the liberal market economies of the UK, United States, Canada and Australia.

The climate change research community spends a lot of time and effort on rebutting and debunking the false claims of the deniers, but we are only partly successful because we often mistakenly assume that public and political debates operate like debates in lecture theatres and laboratories. They do not.

The major difference is that most, but not all, scientific debates are settled through empirical observation and reasoning, which either supports or refutes a particular line of argument. The audience is usually expert enough to examine the evidence and recognise which argument is right.

But political and public debates about scientific issues, such as climate change, are not usually settled through empirical observation and reasoning. The audience is often unable to examine the evidence for themselves, and instead have to decide what to believe based on the performance of those making the arguments.

In this case, facts do not win debates on their own, and being right does not necessarily mean you win the argument (as anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows well).

So to win public debates, it is not enough for researchers to have the facts and evidence on their side. They also need to know how to win an argument.

It is not a coincidence that the most prominent climate change deniers are not climate scientists but professional communicators in politics or the media. They are the kind of people who joined debate clubs at school or university, something that aspiring scientists rarely do.

Climate change researchers can often lose a debate before it has even started because they allow deniers to frame the argument. The most common example of this is when the discussion is focused on whether scientists are certain that human activities are causing global warming. Few scientists are willing to say that they are certain about anything, but deniers can mislead audiences into believing that no action should be taken until the scientists are certain.

This is a false framing, of course. Climate change is ultimately an issue of risk management, and uncertainty is not a reason for inaction. Here is an analogy. Trump Tower in New York caught fire earlier this month, tragically resulting in a man’s death. It was presumably insured against fire damage, but did the Trump Organisation ask the insurance company if it was certain the building would catch fire before agreeing to buy coverage? That seems to be President Trump’s approach to climate change risks.

It is even more important now for climate change researchers to improve their public debating skills because some deniers are changing their tactics in order to win over policy-makers and the public. They are self-styled ‘lukewarmers’.

The ‘lukewarmers’ claim that they accept that global warming is happening and that human activities are at least partly contributing. But they insist that the impacts will be small and manageable, while efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are much too difficult or expensive.

They implicitly differentiate their position from ‘greenhouse effect deniers’ to appear more credible, and claim to be part of the ‘mainstream’. They also contrast their arguments with so-called ‘climate alarmists’, attempting to marginalise those, including most researchers, who argue that the impacts of climate change could be severe.

The ‘lukewarmers’ may accept the physics of the greenhouse effect, but they selectively deny any evidence that the risks of climate change are serious, and cherry-pick which scientific and economic research they believe in. Like ‘greenhouse effect deniers’, the ‘lukewarmers’ often focus on small areas of uncertainty and exaggerate the significance of outliers.

While they lack qualifications and expertise in climate science, the false claims of ‘lukewarmers’ are amplified by the media, particularly in the columns of right-wing newspapers and magazines. Often, they have undeclared motivations for their denial. Many of them are ideologically opposed to regulation of fossil fuel companies and other businesses. The ‘lukewarmers’ use the same tactics as the tobacco industry, overstating uncertainties to obfuscate and mislead policy-makers. Promoting a debate about the scientific evidence for climate change is simply a tactic they employ to prevent a debate about policy actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change researchers already know that ‘lukewarmers’ and other deniers cannot be persuaded by evidence or scientific reasoning, so debating them in private is usually a waste of time. But when they are given a public platform, ‘lukewarmers’ are dangerous and can threaten lives and livelihoods. So climate change researchers can serve the public interest by challenging the false claims by ‘lukewarmers’, focusing on helping the audience to distinguish between facts and fictions.

However, climate change researchers need to be better prepared to perform this role effectively. They need to learn and practice their debating skills. Indeed, such skills should become part of the education and training for scientists, particularly those who are working in areas of public or political controversy.

Any scientist who wants to be better at public debate can start by reading the excellent book by Jay Heinrichs on ‘Thank You for Arguing’. ‘The New York Times’ bestseller was first published in 2007, and updated last year. Although it is mainly aimed at an American audience, it provides a witty and enjoyable introduction to the art of persuasion, or rhetoric, with lots of advice and even some exercises to allow you to practice.

For further information about how to tackle the ‘lukewarmers’, you can also download my presentation on 9 April at the European Geoscience Union General Assembly 2018.


Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.