Professor Richard Betts made a guest post on the blog “And Then There’s Physics” (ATTP) on how we should “label the behaviour, not the person”, in relation to global warming denialism or contrarianism, and in particular labels applied to people, such as “denier”.
He proposes that we should de-polarize the ‘debate’ around Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), and specifically, avoid using the term ‘denier’. Of course, it takes all sides to ‘de-polarize’ but in any conflict, it is good to take the initiative.
He further points out that this goes beyond the negative language traded between those with opposed positions, because often those of moderate temperament, but with a lot of insight and knowledge (e.g. the climate scientists who are colleagues of Richard Betts) are it seems put off from engaging in the blogosphere, due to the atmosphere that has been created, in this increasingly polarized medium.
I was thinking of contributing to the over 300 comments to this blog post, but decided that my best response was a blog post of my own, because I support Professor Betts basic premise, and wanted to go further: to question if polarization was leading to something worse – missing the target!
I envisage a simple matrix to characterize the spectrum of opinions on AGW.
- In one dimension (vertical), we have the point of view, from the “Pro” (AGW) and “Anti” and the much greater population of those or are undecided (no, I cannot say this is backed up by a specific opinion survey, but is broadly reflected in samples of opinion, and polls – but the areas are not accurate, merely indicative).
- The other dimension (horizontal) represents the level of engagement with AGW, from ‘passive’ (and often confused with it), through to ‘engaged’ (and with an exploratory / learning posture), and finally, those who are ‘active’ participants in the ‘debate’, with an establish Point Of View (POV), which may be backed up with some expertise (but that in itself is sometimes a contentious point).
This is depicted in the diagram at the head of this post. Within this spectrum of views I have overlayed different populations:
A. The mass of population, who are it seems minded to believe in AGW, but certainly not equipped to argue the case. To a large extent they are passive and rather confused by the arguments.
B. The influencers, opinion formers and the engaged populace are much less in number but have significant impact on policy. They are engaged to the extent of exploring and learning, and have formed but malleable opinions. In the ‘Pro’ camp will be a number of activist groups as well as outreach organizations (e.g. COIN). In the ‘Anti’ group are a number of vocal contrarians, such as contrarians that feature in the WSJ. [quite a few on both side – this is not intended to provide an exhaustive list]
C. These have an established point of view (POV), and are the experts bodies including scientific societies and of course the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which represents the overwhelming scientific accumulation of knowledge, and consensus.
D. These have an established POV, and are those groups dedicated to countering the consensus, such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), often within a liberal economic posture.
X. Are those blogs in the blogosphere aligned to the ‘Pro’ position, and include experts in various disciplines, including climate science, as well as amateurs
Y. Are those blogs in the blogosphere aligned to the ‘Anti’ position, and include experts in various disciplines as well as amateurs
To be “undecided” as an establish POV is not an impossible position, and scientists in this category, after they did the analysis, have moved to the “Pro” position. See, for example, Professor Muller’s change of viewpoint.
The problem with the blogosphere is that it has today a characteristic (partly borne of weakly moderated ‘discussion threads’) that seems to encourage an escalation in language. The ‘deniers’ versus the ‘warmists’, rapidly degenerates into personal abuse and expletives.
Professor Betts feels it is not helping, and inhibits engagement of a wider audience or participation, and to recruit valuable resources who can help in communicating the science and ensuing issues.
What the diagram above tries to convey is that two groups – A. the mass population and B. influencers, opinion formers and the engaged populace – are where those (with a strong POV) should be expending our energy. Those in the D category like GWPF have certainly got this message. Those in the C category have in recent years begun to do much better (despite a funding disadvantage), but need to do much more.
We need those in the C and X categories to spend more time talking to each other, to develop the materials needed to engage effectively with categories A and B, rather than engage in attrition with categories D and Y.
Should X category bloggers refuse to talk to Y category bloggers? Mostly, I believe yes, given the current atmosphere. But when there is a shared interest in a specific topic, there is scope for a constructive discussion (e.g. to debate the potential role of nuclear in mitigation).
The Anti-Pro polarization is consuming excessive energy while, guess what, the Anti-camp is working vigorously to influence the mass population and opinion formers, to try to undermine the Pro position (although, increasingly, ineffectively judging from the polls).
Focusing on the conflict between the small number of Pro and Anti bloggers (X vs Y), may provide some kind of gratification, but it fails to ensure we build a wider ‘Pro’ platform.
We need a bigger community of active Pro communicators … that can better engage with both the passive and engaged populace, and use limited time and energy in smart ways.
Maybe the time has come to ignore denial.