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Reframing the Debate on Climate Science

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The international consensus on global warming has seemingly experienced a spectacular slow-motion train wreck over the last few months, with "climategate" reports piling up in public debate like derailing rail cars filmed in freeze frame. The fascination for on-lookers, however, is that the science itself is largely blameless. Instead, the pile-up stands as a case study in how not to wage a political battle. And make no mistake; the attacks on climate science are pure politics. We have seen attacks on science before, just pick your favorite example: smoking, toxic pollution, seat belts, etc. However, until there is a fundamental reframing of the climate science debate, one that illuminates the politics, the attacks will continue to enjoy success.

Before focusing on how to reframe the debate on climate science, it's fair to ask whether it's worth the effort. In the wake of the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC report on climate change three years ago, with climate science seemingly well established, advocates for climate protection focused their attention and rhetoric on the power of clean technology to fuel economic growth and create green jobs. This strategy was driven in part by the sober realization that abstract science is very limited when it comes to reaching and mobilizing mainstream audiences in the U.S. Fancy PowerPoint charts describing a threat arriving 100 years in the future just won't cut it when your job is on the line right now and rent is due next week.

With the IPCC report well publicized, the champions of climate science moved onto other fronts, leaving climate scientists to hold down the fort. However, this approach ignored a basic principal of conflict - victories must be defended. Not surprisingly, the opponents of climate protection took advantage and mobilized to attack the science. They understood full well that, while the science is insufficient by itself to mobilize public will, it does provide the foundation for building the moral outrage than can and does move Americans. Poll after poll has found that highlighting the threat global warming poses to our children's future is one of the few compelling arguments that gain traction with mainstream audiences. But that threat is meaningless if the science is not believed.

At the same time, the scale and pace of change required to avoid catastrophic climate change can't be summoned simply by highlighting the benefits of investing in clean energy. The benefits from changing over to a low carbon society are too diffuse, and the few big winners are yet to be known. Meanwhile the losers know exactly who they are and understand that they stand to lose, and they have the deep pockets to fight long and hard. Choosing between highlighting the benefits of change or focusing on the danger of inaction is a bad strategy. Both benefits and risks must be illuminated.

Science is the question (and it shouldn't be)

Currently, media coverage of climate science is framed such that it defines the fundamental question as an issue of science, not politics. In this setting, the more the science is debated, the more the science is defined as debatable. There is simply no way to "prove" the science in a sound bite or a new story. Debating the science in the news is a no-win proposition that perpetuates pubic doubt.

There are four dimensions to the frame of every issue. And there is an opportunity to recast every dimension of climate science debate.

The Messenger

When audiences read news stories and attempt to make out the underlying issues, they take an important cue from the identity of the messengers. And currently, climate scientists are almost the sole messengers defending climate science. While this is problematic on a number of fronts, it is particularly challenging for the framing of the debate. Putting a scientist in the messenger role reinforces the notion that the fundamental issue is a question about the science. If scientists are doing the debating it is only natural to assume the science is debatable.

Beyond the question of identity, many scientists don't make for a good messenger when the issue is politicized, such as with climate science. They are loath to call out the politics and step into a controversy outside their area of expertise.

Climate scientists must be joined by other messengers who are willing to stand up and speak out against the attack on science: farmers whose children would inherit dust-bowl farms due to the delay urged by climate deniers, generals who understand the national security threat, and business leaders who understand that every year of delay in investing in clean energy costs the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Message

When debate becomes poisoned and opponents are engaged in distortion and deceit, it becomes critically necessary to call out the politics and highlight the consequences of arguing in bad faith.

Climate advocates should document and highlight the funding and industry ties for the current wave of climate deniers. While the new generation of critics is often driven by partisan politics as much as by direct industry interests, their partisanship is fair game for reprove, particularly when it comes at the expense of our nation.

Advocates for climate protection need to go on the offensive. They need to go beyond saying what the attacks don't do ("they don't undermine the science") and spell out what the attacks do achieve: costly and dangerous delay.

Calling out the politics is a way to bridge the debate, to move away from debating climate science to highlighting the impacts of climate change as well as the opportunity to invest in a clean energy economy, an opportunity jeopardized by the delaying and stonewalling tactics of climate deniers.

The Audience

The audience forms the third dimension of a news frame. Tell the same story to a different audience and you can end up with a different story. In the context of the climate science debate, addressing the ultra-conservative audiences served up by Fox News is a low priority. The focus should be on independent audiences in key states. At the same time, it is important not to ignore liberal bloggers simply because reaching out to them is seen as preaching to the choir. That choir makes up the much talked about echo chamber, and if you don't give the choir a songbook, it doesn't know what to sing.

The Setting

It's critically important to do more than defend the IPCC. Debating 1,000 page science reports is not a compelling setting, and the rehabilitation of the IPCC brand will not happen overnight, despite the fact that the damage was done by erroneous attacks.

A better setting for talking about climate science is a real time impact of climate change, be it a record heat wave or record heavy rains followed by heavy flooding. There is no denying what your eyes can see. Last fall's record setting flood in Atlanta was a textbook example of the kind of impact that should be highlighted. Only months earlier, NOAA had released a consensus science report documenting the trend of increased heavy precipitation during the fall months in the southeastern United States. NOAA identified climate change as driving the trend and predicted more of the same for the future.

Some have argued that focusing on current weather can be tricky. However, advocates were forced to do just that when opponents focused on the recent snowstorms as "proof" that global warming was oversold. Advocates were successful in pushing back on climate change deniers in that instance, and the same effort should be applied to upcoming heat waves, droughts and flooding, events that fit the pattern of increasing extreme events that scientists have clearly documented and predicted will only increase as the impacts of climate change intensify,

Another useful setting can be the courtroom, where the plaintiffs are real life people who've suffered real losses from climate change. In this setting the question is not whether or not the science is solid, but whether the fossils fuel industry should be held legally liable for the billions of tons of carbon pollution it has dumped into the atmosphere.

Other useful story lines could highlight different governments, companies, and stakeholders such as water managers who are already making decisions and taking action based on what the science is dictating, reinforcing the notion that the science is settled--and urgent--with dramatic consequences for their business and communities.

Fending off the attack on climate science does require a concerted rapid-response defense simply to set the record straight. But winning the debate requires going beyond defending the science. It requires asking different questions, such as who wins and who loses.

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