Getting Snowed

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

As major storms cover the northeast, the classic canard of conflating climate with weather takes on ridiculous new forms. But is it better to fight or ignore them?

Illustration: Mike Pick

Much of the northeast lies under a blanket of snow, courtesy of two back-to-back blizzards this week, which means it’s time for everyone’s favorite climate change denialism talking point: Whatever happened to that global warming thing, Al Gore?

Take this example: A Fox News anchor buried a copy of Gore’s 2006 book An Inconvenient Truth in the snow on Wednesday, in an attempt to somehow depict the recent record snowfall as a refutation of the claims Gore has championed for much of his adult life.

It’s 2010. Are conservatives still making fun of An Inconvenient Truth? Even though it came out more than three years ago and isn’t even his most recent book on global warming? Or his second most recent book on global warming?

Obviously, the answer is yes. And the culprits aren’t just the Sean Hannitys and Sarah Palins, whose jobs entail a certain amount of clownery. This is the level of discourse we have at the top of our legislative branch. When you’re James Inhofe, why engage in a reasonable debate when you can just have your grandkids build an igloo and stick Al Gore’s name on top of it?

One thing should be clear throughout this silly display: Senators and news anchors who repeatedly confuse and conflate short-term weather fluctuations with long-term climate change are not instances of scientific education gone awry. More likely, such behavior may really be an indication of a problem so deep-seated that no amount of scientific education can fix it. Inhofe’s and Hannity’s willingness to suggest that a February snowstorm negates the record high temperatures of the last decade does not mean they are ignorant or misinformed. It means they are liars.

It seems that ScienceBlogger James Hrynyshyn and I came to the same conclusion at roughly the same time. But whereas Inhofe and company were careful to merely insinuate that harsh winter weather disproves climate change, Hyrnshyn points out a story unfolding in the UK where prominent climate skeptics are simply lying through their teeth. The offense in question? Consistently repeating a fabricated quote from one of the founders of the IPCC, the United Nations’ taskforce examining the impact of climate change.

But excuse my language. Is describing Christopher Mockton as a “prominent climate skeptic” giving him more credit than he deserve? Are the New York Times and other news sources playing into the hands of his American ilk by simply reporting their antics

Hrynyshyn takes the Times to task for helping legitimize denialists and dissemblers. He also calls out fellow ScienceBlogger Matt Nisbet for offering apologia for journalists and the tradition of balance that enables this phenomenon.

He may be onto something. As I said when Palin was ginning up rumors of “death panels” masquerading as government health care, or when the “Climategate” story first broke, vociferously fighting misinformation often just makes the opposition’s false beliefs more entrenched.

But in that sense, Nisbet and Hrynyshyn might agree more than it first appears. Nisbet appeared on a panel discussion with veteran environmental journalist Andy Revkin and science-policy maven Sheila Jasanoff, at Harvard last Thursday. And while Revkin advised wading into the Twitter trenches against “flamers” and trolls, Nisbet’s framing advice was much less confrontational. We should simply be more positive, he said, highlighting the benefits of acting against climate change—clean air, green jobs, healthier children—rather than playing up the potential for environmental disaster.

John Tierney, no friend to treehuggers himself, suggests why this might be the right strategy when describing new research about what types of news articles are most likely to be shared. Sociologists at the University of Pennsylvania, after examining several thousand stories and the frequency with which each was emailed, made some surprising conclusions, especially for those of us who are already mourning the death of long-format science journalism.

The big winners in the study were long articles that evoked strong emotions rather than practical information. Positive emotions fared better than negative ones, and one of the most powerful predictors of an article’s popularity was whether or not its story elicited a feeling of awe.

So what does this teach us about communicating the realities of climate change? For one, it gives some perspective on the climate/weather conflation strategy. These Al-Gore-infused talking points go viral because they’re more emotional than logical. And once you get past the immediate negative aspects of being cold and inconvenienced by the snow, the emotion is actually pretty positive: We’re not all going to die after all! I don’t have to change! Everything is just fine!

And let’s not forget the awe aspect. Much of the rhetoric in the denialist camp flips the script of hubristic humans toying with the balance of nature. In their narrative, it is arrogant to believe humans are powerful enough to influence nature at all. Global mean temperatures and the composition of the atmosphere are phenomena that dwarf humanity in scale and duration, or they are simply God’s exclusive dominion. Either way, awe figures heavily into the message.

So while it’s eminently enjoyable to watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert take apart childish stunts by Inhofe and friends, it might be better to just to leave them in the sandbox. We’ve got an awesome bright green future to build. I think we can make a case for pitching in that’s more persuasive than an igloo with a sign on top of it.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published February 12, 2010

Tags climate communication public perception

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