We Need Sharper Questions for a Broken Climate Debate

, former science communication officer | January 22, 2015, 11:36 am EDT
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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) recently claimed that human-caused climate change “is not well-established.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he wanted to “let scientists debate…” why the climate is changing.

By contrast, Mitt Romney reportedly said “that while he hopes the skeptics about global climate change are right, he believes it’s real and a major problem,” according to the Des Moines Register.

Katie Couric asking Sen. Marco Rubio about climate change around minute 27 of their full interview.

Katie Couric asking Sen. Marco Rubio about climate change around minute 27 of their full interview.

It’s no secret that Republican and Democratic policy makers, particularly at the federal level, are divided on climate science. Just last night, the Senate held two votes that demonstrated how far senators are willing to go in endorsing even the most basic statements about climate science.

What may be surprising, however,  is that Republican citizens have diverse views on climate science and related policy. Further, Zack Colman at the Washington Examiner just broke a story about Congressional Republicans mulling ways to reformulate their approach to climate issues.

Still, journalists have their work cut out for them when they interview politicians who reject mainstream climate science. Can they do more to move our political dialogue past scientifically inaccurate talking points? I think so.

Future scenarios for climate change

Lower vs. higher emissions. Climate risks run from “bad to very bad” as my colleague Jason Funk put it. While there are some uncertainties related to how bad it might get, the risks of sea-level rise, extreme heat and disruptions to rainfall patterns are much higher on a planet that warms an additional 8 degrees versus one that warms another 2 degrees. These are the stakes of the debate. Source: National Climate Assessment / Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Arguing about the basic science gets us nowhere

Scientists are as certain that industrial activities are causing climate change as they are that smoking causes lung disease. They have robust estimates of how much heat industrial emissions are trapping in our atmosphere. It’s clear that recent climate change is not natural.

So while asking politicians whether or not they accept those facts is certainly useful, the public also deserves to know what politicians are going to do about the consequences of climate change and how they want to shape our country’s energy mix.

Dealing with climate risks and energy policy instead of arguing about science

Sen. Rubio’s home state of Florida is on the front lines of sea level rise. The good news is that local leaders have reached across the aisle to grapple with it. Does Sen. Rubio support their efforts? How does he want the country to deal with sea level rise? We probably won’t know unless a journalist asks.

Sea-level rise projections from Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact

Florida counties are already using sea-level rise projections to plan for climate change. This is one of many ways local and state governments are integrating climate science into planning. Source: Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact

When it comes to reducing emissions, the Sunshine State is also a great place for solar panels. A coalition including Tea Party supporters and environmentalists is trying to make it easier for Florida homeowners to sell solar electricity from their homes back to the grid. Again, it’d be nice to know what the senator thinks of those efforts.

Other politicians who dispute basic climate science have also found ways to work with their colleagues on climate issues, including using climate science to deal with drought and figuring out the most cost-effective ways to reduce black carbon pollution. And they often reach across the aisle on energy issues, including renewables and efficiency, two key building blocks for reducing emissions.

Sharper questions for a polarized debate

Journalists will certainly want to get politicians on the record regarding their beliefs about whether or not industrial emissions cause climate change, especially in the run up to the 2016 presidential election. But given how divorced from reality the political debate has become, they can do more, too:

Jake Tapper grills the candidates for Florida’s governorship in an October 21 debate. Via CNN.com.

Jake Tapper grills the candidates for Florida’s governorship in an October 21 debate. Via CNN.com.

Anticipate Dodges and Misinformation

CNN’s Jake Tapper did this effectively when he moderated a Florida gubernatorial debate. He anticipated Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s previous dismissive statement about climate science (“I’m not a scientist”) and got the candidates to debate policy, instead.

Ask About Climate Risks

Moderators did this at three gubernatorial debates in Florida, Maryland, and Virginia and the results were encouraging; they garnered substantive responses instead of polarized arguments about established science.

Ask About Energy Policy

Even politicians who reject climate science often support clean energy. For instance, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has dismissed climate science and also vocally supports wind power. Many politicians simply aren’t monolithic on these issues, including Democrats who favor climate action along with policies that promote fossil fuels.

Ask Who Pays for Climate Risks?

A Republican legislator in Virginia is proposing using a carbon price to help pay for dealing with sea level rise in his state. The federal flood insurance system is under increased strain as sea levels rise around increasingly valuable coastal property. And in Oregon, the state is re-negotiating wildfire insurance policy. Where do politicians stand on paying for climate-related damages? Is it on property owners? Taxpayers? Polluting businesses?

Give the Audience the Facts

Finally, journalists can simply note to their audience that politicians who reject climate science are incorrect. Jake Tapper did that during an interview with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) before moving onto another topic. That’s better than letting misinformation about established science go unchecked.

Moving the conversation forward

As someone who works with climate researchers, the past few cycles of election coverage were often frustrating to watch. There were few questions about climate or energy policy and many of them were starkly simplistic. Social science research indicates – strongly – that political discourse around climate change shapes public opinion far more than scientific research does. That’s why I hope media outlets – and, of course, the politicians themselves – can do better this season.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags: , , , , , , ,

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  • Elene Gusch, DOM

    “…political discourse around climate change shapes public opinion far more than scientific research does.” At least that gives us SOME chance of getting people to listen!

  • Gary Connor

    Whether or not you agree with climate change everyone would have to agree reducing widescale pollution is a good thing.

    I am an inventor who developed a hydroelectric system.It can increase the stability of power grids (increase the availablility and access of power by over 1000% and creating a grid that can de divided into individual independent working sections should there be some disaster..or even a terrorist attack on the grid) eliminating the need for coal burning or Nuclear while also reaping the benefits of reclaiming land with pressurized irrigation without pump stations that can be run up to thousands of miles inland. It can keep waterways open for Fish and river traffic and it is very efficient at flood control.Plus many other benefits such as putting millions of people to work on a project that will ultimately pay for itself in energy production, whether or not you believe in global warming can reduce greenhouse emissions by billions of pounds….and can be implemented NOW with current technology and materials.

    People forget that the best answers in the past have come from the populace and NOT from government affiliated teams, projects or think tanks ..ie…Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Edison, Einstein, Ford and even Bill Gates..

  • TorontoSteve

    In Canada, the next prime minister is expected to be son of Pierre Trudeau, Justin Trudeau. When asked about carbon pricing (very minimal stuff), he said its up to provinces and has said nothing about coming crisis. These people are so out of touch with the crisis, that its criminal. A dumb populace basically laps it up like Pavlov’s dogs. Media should be hounding ALL political wannabees.

    • You might already know about this, but my colleagues and I have been following some developments in Canada, particularly censorship of federal scientists: http://blog.ucsusa.org/tag/canada. Given our experiences in the United States with this, we’ve been happy to help our friends in Canada expose and address these problems, too.

  • Andy Zucker

    Thanks for this post.

  • Nick Naylor

    Allowing the GOP to question the reality of climate change or the causes of it opens the door to claims that scientists are overestimating the degree and/or nature of the risk, and makes it that much easier to argue for inadequate or no action at all.
    This denial must be challenged strongly. While we must simultaneously pursue every available ethical approach to solving the problem, we can’t afford to let the GOP play with loaded dice.

    • It freezes the debate in a lot of ways. Interestingly, when politicians argue for a lower-risk version of climate change, they’re acknowledging some risk, but they’re often not following through with policies that would actually address them.