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Simon Donner's picture
University of British Columbia

Simon Donner is a professor in the Geography Department at the University of British Columbia who studies why the climate matters to people and aquatic ecosystems, including rivers and coral reefs.

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Changing the tone of the Climate Change discourse

In a short article on the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, Keith Kloor compares online climate change discourse to a “roller derby” and a “street fight”

Taken together, the intimidation tactics of climate science bashers and the new pressure campaigns, by allies of the concerned climate community, promise to, if nothing else, ratchet up the rhetoric of both sides and deepen the politicization of global warming. Just what the public discourse doesn’t need. Meanwhile, the conflict-loving media will eat it up and stoke the fires.

For climate campaigners and their adversaries, the escalating war of wits is a fait accompli. They are not constrained by how they might be perceived by the public at large. But the stakes are higher for the climate science community, which must defend itself against scurrilous attacks while staying above the fray. Not an easy balancing act.

I’ve written and spoken about the need for humility among climate scientists and climate bloggers countless times in the past two years. A recent academic paper of mine on history, belief and climate communication concluded with this statement:

Reforming public communication about anthropogenic climate change will require humility on the part of scientists and educators. Climate scientists, for whom any inherent doubts about the possible extent of human influence on the climate were overcome by years of training in physics and chemistry of the climate system, need to accept that there are rational cultural, religious, and historical reasons why the public may fail to believe that anthropogenic climate change is real, let alone that it warrants a policy response.
Ironically, online “coverage” of that paper drew some amazingly angry and personal comments. Had I followed the ethos of the Nature editorial (which Keith cites) arguing that climate scientists need to realize they are in a street fight, then I suppose I would have fought back in kind.

To what end? You don’t change the tone of the discussion by spewing venom. I am interested in the long game here. I certainly hope the same is true for other climate scientists. Better we make the effort to understand why people are so angry about this issue than we win cheap short-term points by responding in kind to every slight. Even if our siblings wish we did (sorry sis).

If climate discourse is a street fight, then we need to do more than fight back. We need to learn how to take a punch.

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