Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Part 4: Argument Inventory, or What You Need to Say to Win

There are numerous arguments that a concerned citizen could make to advance their claims about the climate crisis. However, two key arguments must be made--and won--to convince others that the climate crisis mandates immediate action: the compelling overlap of scientific opinion and the common sense argument for change. This section serves as a small primer; highlighting the substance of the skeptics' claims as well as developing some argumentative responses.

Argument #1: Convince Your Audience there is a Compelling Overlap of Scientific Opinion that Mandates Action

Dilemma: The Luntz memo admitted that “the science” was closing against the skeptics, and that they needed to continue to call it into question in order to keep the debate alive.

Strategy: A persuasive climate strategy must effectively communicate the overwhelming scientific opinion that global warming is happening and will lead to disaster if left unchecked. There was a brief window in the early 1990s when the certainty that global warming would create serious challenges was the majority opinion in the United States. Following the release of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 1990, there seemed to be a consensus amongst the scientific community that greenhouse gas-induced warming was indeed caused by human activity. This report was initially considered the pre-eminent authority on climate, particularly because the findings emerged from the collaboration of over 2500 international scientists. Since then, numerous Nobel laureates, the National Academy of Sciences, and even the Pentagon have identified the climate crisis as a serious 21st century challenge. Unfortunately, various efforts by oil, gas, and business lobbies have called global warming science into question since the release of subsequent IPCC reports in 1996 and 2001. The Bush administration has also worked to downplay the risk of global warming, casting doubt on the conclusions of the 2001 National Academy of Sciences report and ordering a follow-up report for the IPCC conclusions.

  • "Compelling scientific overlap" is a winning argument. Currently, advocates try to communicate the weight of scientific opinion by talking about the "consensus" that anthropogenic warming is occuring. When "consensus" becomes the dominant term, opponents only have to focus on presenting a small number of dissenting cases to undermine the whole position. Another way to articulate the widespread agreement on the basics of climate change is to describe the "consensus" as a "compelling overlap of scientific opinion." Such a shift has two effects. First, "compelling" moves the debate towards an action frame: what are we compelled to do as a result of these scientific findings? This enables advocates to change the focus of debates from the question of “is human-caused warming happening?” to "what should we do about human-caused climate change?" Second, "overlap of scientific opinion" signals that there is widespread agreement from scientists of many fields. Global warming advocates should be clear that the best scientific studies conclude that warming is happening, and should instead focus on the urgency of engaging the issue. As concerned citizens, we need to make sure that we "call ‘em like we see ‘em" if we run across arguments downplaying the risk of global warming. One way to illustrate this point is by example—we might say something like, “to question such scientific conclusions is analogous to questioning the American Medical Association’s assertion that cigarette smoking is linked to cancer.”

  • We get to blame the media too! The Bush administration is not the sole cause of misperception. Media coverage of climate issues has shifted the debate from the purely expert realm into everyday discourse. While increased media attention may have provided the public with a general sense of global warming, media coverage has failed to convey climate science effectively. When journalists lack specific knowledge about climate science, they tend to underplay the majority scientific opinion and overplay the uncertainty, which in turn provides their readers with an inaccurate and ambiguous view of the global warming debate. Climate advocate and former journalist Ross Gelbspan gives an illustrative example: a truly accurate report would discuss the consensus perspective in 95 percent of the article, leaving a brief paragraph at the end for the skeptics' views. We certainly are not against media coverage of the climate debate, and are committed to the free flow of information so that all citizens can make informed decisions on this issue. Instead, we propose that a more representative and comprehensive way to report about global warming would be to discuss the skeptic’s arguments as small exceptions to the generally accepted opinion, through special interest articles or features.

Argument #2: Convince Your Audience that Acting on the Climate Crisis is Common Sense

Dilemma: Frank Luntz says that the “best solutions to environmental challenges are common sense solutions."

Strategy: Here we can agree with Mr. Luntz: to expect a lay public to filter through conflicting and complex scientific evidence in order to form an opinion on global warming is a high expectation. The climate skeptics have adopted a strategy that relies on "common sense." Common sense mandates sticking to the status quo, which avoids the potential economic harms global warming policies pose. After all, who wants to risk jobs and economic harm if we are still uncertain about the realities of global warming? Concerned citizens should also have an argument strategy that plays upon the rhetorical power of common sense. We should build upon the admirable strides made by environmentalists and climate scientists on this front, including the Common Sense Climate Index. Just as the Republicans made a conscious image change from “environmentalists” to “conservationists,” it is time for advocates to identify acting on the climate crisis as common sense. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Use your common sense (but add in good sense as well). Climate skeptics do not have a monopoly on common sense. We need to counter these arguments with language that resonates with citizens' common sense about precaution. Stressing that the lack of scientific certainty is not an excuse for inaction, as environmentalists often do by invoking the "precautionary principle," is a good way to acknowledge the small amount of uncertainty in the science debate but still argue that policy changes should reflect scientific consensus. Using common sense maxims such as “look before you leap” and “better safe than sorry” encompass our message in a way that might appeal to a wider audience.

  • Check alarmism at the door. Anyone who saw last summer’s film, The Day After Tomorrow, can attest to the potentially disastrous consequences of global warming. Droughts, ice ages, storms, crop devastation, and diseases are only a few of the catastrophic scenarios that might be waiting around the corner if we fail to slow rapid warming. Educating the public about long term disasters is undoubtedly important. However, as the critical reaction to The Day After Tomorrow indicates, alarmist rhetoric about the potential impacts of the climate crisis can also work against advocates. If we preach apocalypse and all that happens next year is a warmer winter, we will fail to communicate the urgency of action. A more effective approach would be to articulate the consequences of global warming in terms of a 30 year timeframe instead of a 500 year timeframe. Even though the potential consequences might be less dramatic, talking about the climate crisis in terms of what will occur within this lifetime will put things into perspective. This may be easier than we think: the European heat wave of 2003 linked unusually high mortality rates to climate change, we continue to feel the impact of storms (including hurricanes and tornadoes), and many sources predict that ongoing droughts due to climate oscillations will lead to a major water shortage by 2025.

  • Love thy Neighbor. That countries generally act in their own interests has become common sense, and in fact, that has been the core of the Bush administration’s argument for not ratifying the Kyoto treaty. However, it is also common sense to help out other countries when they are in dire need. Most recently, this common sense was manifested in the outpouring of support and empathy for the victims of the tsunami. As we begin to see the impacts of global warming, we should note that Americans will not be the first ones affected—people in other parts of the world will be hardest hit. We should not be mistaken: global warming is a truly global problem, and eventually will impact everyone. However, in the meantime, our ability to empathize with countries already bearing the brunt of climate shifts can drive our commitment to act now.

  • Help others enter an "empowerment zone." As gas prices go up, the oil peak gets nearer, and our resources become more and more overstretched, a larger portion of the population will become concerned with these issues by necessity. If we start with everyday conversations with neighbors and family members about how to move away from overindulgent energy consumption, we might find a more persuasive way to approach the debate that, in turn, rewards consumers. Citizens need to feel like they can be empowered to change their situation; otherwise the magnitude of the problem will overwhelm their activist energies. While no one person or group of people can stop the climate crisis on their own. However, changing individual consumption patterns through education is the first step in the right direction and might rebound to impact the broader public debate positively.


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