Climate Science vs. Climate Change vs. Climate Politics—Rules of Engagement

8 Feb

I’ve been reading and participating in a discussion (well, a Q and A really) on Quora this week. It all started when someone asked a question about how to convince a climate skeptic that global warming is real and invited me to answer it. The question has since been refined and my answer gone the way of the dodo, but it got me to thinking. To me, it’s the wrong question.

You can get stuck into the answers (there are both those who would say they are skeptics and those who are not involved in answering) and debating little points. But what strikes me are the assumptions many (on both sides of the issue) make about those “on the other side.” And those assumptions are barriers to communication, leading to misunderstanding, frustration, and polarisation.

I thought I’d write a little post about what I see as the fair, open, and honest Rules of Engagement for talking about climate change. I’d like to think they apply to anyone, anywhere, actually. And I’d hope that, after reading this, we’d all share them, and follow them as best we could.

 Rule #1: Assume nothing about who you’re talking/debating with.

This might seem quite simple, but it’s something that we all do—climate scientists, environmental activists, skeptics, politicians, and just regular people.

Who is a climate skeptic? One might assume that he or she is uneducated, ignorant, misinformed, stupid, right-wing, political…and that’s wrong.

Who is a supporter of action on climate change issues? I’ve seen them described as environmentally conscious, tree-hugging, left-wing, socialists, Marxists, elitists, well-educated, brainwashed, greenwashed, zealots….and that’s wrong.

There may be people who fit those descriptions. But that’s not everyone. And it’s incredibly dangerous to pigeonhole and underestimate people. They know it, they resent it, and they are less likely to listen to you, trust you, or respect you.

So if you are talking to someone who is skeptical about climate science or whether climate change is caused by humans, don’t assume that it’s because of a lack of knowledge, or education, or intelligence, or because they’re being paid by big oil.

And if you’re a skeptic, don’t assume that someone who supports action on climate change is a socialist, or an atheist, or an environmental activist.

Stereotypes help no one.

Rule #2: Keep it above the belt and on the issue.

Climate change is a volatile issue all by itself. We don’t need to be dragging people’s religion, personal lives or mommas into a debate. Keep it polite, keep it focused. Smear campaigns, trolling, bad-mouthing…all the realm of the school-yard bully. Can’t we all be grownups, please?

Rule #3: If you’re going to make a claim, state it clearly, state it specifically, and be prepared to back it up with the latest evidence.

I think that speaks for itself, doesn’t it? After all, this is supposed to be about science. And science requires evidence. Up to date evidence. New science is published every single day.

Rule #4: Listen.

Most of the time when people are debating and the other person is talking, I doubt there is any listening going on. Instead, most of us are probably thinking about what we’re going to say next.

Stop. Listen. Look at things from another perspective.

Rule #5: If you don’t know, say so.

One of the biggest problems with the climate change debate is the bungling of describing scientific uncertainty to the public. Talk about uncertainty. Talk honestly. Talk about what you can confidently talk about. And if you can’t, don’t waffle or generalise. Admit you don’t know, and point them in the direction of someone who does, or ask to go and find out.

Rule #6: Be honest, open, and transparent.

This, too, speaks for itself.

Rule #7: Only ask of your opponent what you’re willing to give of yourself.

It’s unrealistic to demand openness, honesty, “truth” and transparency from someone else if you aren’t going to provide the same in return. Want to know where someone’s funding comes from? Be prepared to reveal your own. Want to know about someone’s ties to a politician, think tank, charity, campaign group, or company? Be prepared to provide that information yourself.

Rule #8: Know when to call it a day.

When you are only going in circles, sometimes the best you can do is agree to disagree. And that’s okay.

What do you think? Any other rules you would add?

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One Response to “Climate Science vs. Climate Change vs. Climate Politics—Rules of Engagement”

  1. Abby Pond February 8, 2012 at 10:12 PM #

    Suggestions thus far (from Twitter):
    -That I remove the word “denier” from the text (which I did, thank you for pointing it out)
    -Adding “Admit when we’ve made a mistake.”
    -Not “demanding surrender”

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