As the effects of climate change get more obvious and the myths from climate deniers get (even) more shrill, many scientists are going through a change that almost has the feel of alchemy.
They’re getting disagreeable. In public. That’s mostly good news, and not a moment too soon.
In a post last week on his Talking Science blog, Australian climate communicator Alvin Stone opened with an important and provocative statement.
“Scientists are too damn polite,” he wrote. “When it comes to controversial areas of science, particularly those that relate to policy decisions—like climate science— good science and scientific facts by themselves do not make enough of a difference to shift policy or social mores.”
By being “polite and agreeable,” Stone said, climate scientists lose ground in two important ways.
Their careful, evidence-based responses to the deniers’ outlandish claims rarely get equal play in commercial media.
And their reasoned approach treats the naysayers “as if they deserve respect and consideration for their views on science.” This wrongly reinforces the meme that climate change is a debate, when it’s actually a matter of settled science.
Scientists Rise Up
Stone is right that it’s time to take the gloves off. We’re up against one of the biggest industries the world has ever seen, and we’re on an excruciatingly short deadline to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least 80%, no later than 2050.
In a recent New York Times op ed, climate pioneer Dr. Michael Mann said it’s “no longer acceptable for scientists to remain on the sidelines.” Citing a familiar mantra from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—if you see something, say something—Mann argued that “if scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest.”
But how to engage is a more complicated question. Stone uses three criteria to define “disagreeable individuals” who’ve shown the ability to shift society: they don’t play by the rules; they aren’t concerned about the opinions of others; they’re courageous and passionate.
So far, so good, with one big exception. Content Marketing 101 tells us that no version of any message is right for every purpose. And that means we can only focus our messaging on climate science if we do care a great deal about what each audience thinks, what they know, and how they’re feeling.
Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable
So climate communicators have to be versatile enough to adjust the tone of the message (not the core of the message itself) depending on whom we’re talking with—and, crucially, who’s listening. Whatever the context, every comment, interview, tweet, or flyer must be aimed at building the next tier of support, solidifying the message with anyone who’s undecided, and explaining the science (yes, again) to anyone who’s bought the deniers’ line.
That certainly means breaking the rules with creative, camera-friendly tactics, and approaching the climate challenge with courage and passion. But we’ll gain more ground, more quickly, if we can forcefully, knowledgeably disagree with anti-science mythology without being disagreeable.
We can do that by making fun of the deniers, rather than yelling back at them (tempting though it might be to yell).
We can ask questions that isolate them or put them on defensive, like the recent post asking why deniers never publish their own scientific papers.
We can open up a different dialogue, as U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse did in a recent committee hearing, by acknowledging that the low-carbon transition raises job fears in coal and oil country—and seeking common cause for coastal areas that are already losing jobs of their own due to climate change.
And we must always, always, relentlessly balance the bad news about climate change with the incredibly good news about affordable, low-carbon energy alternatives. Otherwise, we reinforce the view that climate change is upon us, and there’s nothing to be done. That’s not nearly true, and it also feeds one of the climate deniers’ myths: when they do acknowledge that climate change is happening, they tend to claim that it would be too much trouble to do anything about it.
By adding depth and variety to our messaging, we can do a better job of reaching the “unusual suspects” for whom climate change isn’t an everyday preoccupation. If we start each conversation by listening, adapting, and keeping our voices down, we’ll be more effective with audiences that might judge us on our tone, more than our content.