Learning to Speak Across the Climate Divide

A response to Eric Merkley and Dominik Stecula's "Unbalanced: How Liberal Elites Have Cued Climate Polarization"

Attitude formation is complex and convex. Complex because attitudes are built from our innate cognitive biases, get focused through our life experience and worldview, and become amplified by our group identity. Convex because these forces combine to exacerbate differences and disagreements, drawing an issue away from the center and towards multiple tribal interpretations.

Occasionally, there is a collective threat that allows us to overcome such differences: an external attack or virus can help us reach some consensus, for a while at any rate. But climate change does not fit well with our evolved psychology. It is dispersed, costly, and relatively slow-moving and, above all, does not have an identifiable enemy with the intention to cause harm. In the rich world, we are all responsible in some way, often simply through caring for our families.

The result is a narrative vacuum that our story-structured brains abhor and seek to fill with more compelling storylines of intention and culpability: evil oil companies, liberal extremists stealing our taxes and freedoms, “Third World” overpopulation, Chinese global dominance, overconsumption, the patriarchy, or capitalist hegemony. Climate change is a blank slate for ideological storytelling.

Consequently, Eric Merkley and Dominik Stecula are entirely right to challenge conventional narratives about climate skepticism, especially those that assert a simplified model of cause and effect. Attitude formation is highly complex, after all. However, their revisionist urge leads to its own bias and oversimplification. Oil companies and libertarian think tanks may not have single-handedly generated climate denial, but they certainly did a damned good job of priming the narrative vacuum with their arguments.

Merkley and Stecula’s data-driven approach treats these contrarian arguments as having the same weight and influence as arguments based in science. Thus, they can argue that there is no false balance in the media because, “between 1984 and 2014, denialists appeared in no more than 25 percent of news articles on climate change.”

Denial operates without the constraints of peer review: it simply steers straight for the most compelling narrative with absolute certainty.

But messages from the two sides are never comparable or equivalent. Reporting of climate science is often technical and dry. Denial operates without the constraints of peer review: it simply steers straight for the most compelling narrative with absolute certainty. On a contested issue, a confident professional performer with a good storyline will always be more persuasive than a nervous scientist who cannot speak without caveats and uncertainties.

And, however you look at it, 25 percent of those news articles is still a lot of attention for denialists. What would happen to public opinion if neo-Nazis were given 25 percent of the media coverage on Holocaust Memorial Day?

Merkley and Stecula also tend to oversimplify the many influences on public attitudes. Their research leads them to overstate the role of media coverage and political elite cues. Both factors are, undoubtedly, major influences on public attitudes. But the causality is not simple. Do the mainstream media or politicians influence public opinion, or do they just respond to the values of their readers or viewers? Do elite cues influence media coverage, or do politicians take their cues from the opinion leaders in the media? The answer, of course, is all the above: a complex web of interconnections, evolving narratives, identities, and interests forming around this amorphous wicked problem that lends itself far too well to shape-shifting.

As a lifelong environmentalist with deep roots in the radical movement, I have my own loyalties and desire to defend my friends and fellow travellers. It is with some reluctance then that I admit that Merkley and Stecula are right to chastise environmentalists for our failure to engage people across the political spectrum. We did well to carry the torch for years for an issue about which most people understood little and cared less. But we also served climate change inside a confused narrative of ecological collapse, social justice, and self-abnegation guaranteed to appeal to our own supporters and funders. We did not seek to alienate other groups — we were always open to them becoming like us — but we had little interest in understanding, respecting, or validating their own concerns.

Over the years, I have met and interviewed many of the professional climate change deniers who have worked tirelessly to seed their values in the virgin territory outside the environmental corral. As one told me (I have no desire to name him and get a billing in his blog), “You were all locked in your offices writing another report that no one would read or another failed bill for congress. We were all across conservative talk radio. Day and night.” Fuelled, I would add, by narcissism and missionary zeal rather than Exxon dark money.

And I fear we have still not learned that lesson. The laudable principle of finding commonality between shared experiences and struggles has become an intersectional checklist for the environmental movement. Climate change action must now absorb and respond to every other progressive issue, at every turn clearly signalling that climate change belongs only to people who share the same values. Please come and join us, we say, but only if you agree with us on all these other issues.

Social justice should be the principle that, despite our differences and disagreements, everyone will be affected by climate change, and everyone has something special to contribute. We are very keen to talk about diversity when it involves the people we like, or people we would like to like us, but never when it includes the people with whom we might disagree or, perhaps, from whom we might learn something new.

Read the original essay by Merkley and Stecula here.