Is it Worth Debating Climate Deniers and ‘Skeptics’?

Is it Worth Debating Climate Deniers and ‘Skeptics’?

As advocates, we naturally want to persuade others we come in contact with to act, to do something or change the way they approach the world. As climate advocates, we’re torn between persuading people (with the means to) to change their habits while pressuring governments to adequately regulate the industries who ruin our planet with aplomb. By adequately, of course, I mean enough to swiftly and permanently change industries and break up dirty energy companies. 

Then, there are the climate skeptics, deniers or “climate realists” as they call themselves. Do we expend effort engaging in bad faith debate in the hopes of changing the minds of some onlookers or do we refuse them a platform by ignoring them, also giving them the satisfaction of being unchallenged? It’s a uniquely 2019 dilemma, one fueled by social media and ideology. What could be seen as stubbornness or misunderstanding on the part of the deniers clearly drifts into ideologically-motivated refusal to look at the truth right in front of them. They watch and read takedowns of climate science not because they look for answers, but to be reassured in their beliefs. Donning the aesthetics of revolutionaries who speak truth to power, climate deniers want only to make their ignorance more comfortable. 

People like Ben Shapiro and Jim Crowder (celebrated homophobe) capitalize on that fact, and grow followings and earn livings reaffirming ignorant people’s beliefs. Youtuber ‘Hbomberguy’ recently made a video (see below) addressing these people and the tactics they use to make their claims seem plausible. I highly recommend it to understand the people from which many of these claims originate. It’s a culture that ironically fetishizes science (Shapiro famously taunts “facts don’t care about your feelings”) that I can’t help but see through a gendered, racial lens. Emotion is typically associated with the female, the other, the forces of “chaos” as Jordan Peterson would assert. But, it’s universally agreed upon that facts are good. No one is arguing, as Hbomberguy says, that using data and facts is bad. It’s also important to know that many of these denier agitators are paid by polluting companies, either directly as lobbyists, or through donations to their foundations, projects, books, etc. It’s a job. I won’t rehash his research; instead I want to focus on the question of how to talk to their followers and stop others from falling for the denial trap. 

The Denialists

Climate denial is rarely the only self-serving ideological opinion these people hold; watch enough anti-climate content on YouTube, and you’ll find yourself in the white supremacist, fascist corners of the Interent. They’re radicalized and on some level choose to be. Again, if they wanted to read studies and facts, that information is freely available, though dense and sometimes inaccessible to non-scientists, but available. They instead watch and read content made by political leaders with an agenda all while claiming that it’s the other side (in this case, scientists) that has the agenda. They don’t want to believe that human’s effects on the climate are catastrophic and largely permanent, but they also don’t want to feel bad about that opinion or for their reluctance to do anything. 

On that point, I can understand the underlying drive towards denial. Climate change is a huge problem that will require radical change, and for many people, they just want to live a half enjoyable life and die. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s what most of us want. What’s wrong is that those with privilege are morally obligated to do something about it. They are averse to change and loss, as many many humans are. They wail: “Don’t take away my hamburgers” (we won’t and more on that in my post about the politics of meat) and “don’t tell me to change my worldview and lifestyle.” These are visceral feelings and ones that, frankly, you can’t argue someone out of. It’d be like trying to convince someone to stop believing in their god. You won’t succeed, and if you do, it will have been after smashing their entire worldview and moral compass. 

All that being said, I’m still of the mind that limited engagement with radicals, in public spaces like social media, can be beneficial to a third party audience, if you’re prepared for it. We won’t be able to change most of the hard-line climate deniers, but we can throw a wrench in their plans to draw more into the fold or stop those on the fence from tumbling over it. 

Climate deniers yearn for debate, they will take any opportunity to shoot down climate activists or at least sew doubt in climate science. If you engage with them, you risk giving them an opportunity to sew doubt. That’s their goal — if they can’t totally own you, they’ll act like the reasonable, adult thing to do is decide the truth is somewhere in the middle. You know, that common ground between fact and distortion driven by fear. Let’s only save half the planet. We can see where moderate, incremental change has gotten us so far. 

I realize that this is a similar topic to my recent “how to be a good advocate” article, though upon reflection, dealing with climate deniers, the most vocal opponents to our cause as environmental justice advocates, is a different sport than typical advocating communication. I see well-meaning activists lose hours debating in circles with deniers who leave the interaction usually unscathed and smug about it. 

Don’t legitimize their claims

When the New Yorker Festival announced that Steve Bannon would be its headliner in 2018, activists and allies were outraged. Debating this fascist white supremacist on such a prestigous state asserts that his ideas belong there. They eventually pulled him, for good reason. When you concede that dangerous ideologies are equal to the prevailing socially beneficial thought, you inherently weaken your argument. You may be thinking “but Mary, you fool, we need to find common ground to make progress.” But, do we? 

You will never convince everyone, especially the willingly ignorant, to join your cause. Furthermore, the necessary progress that will objectively save lives and preserve the habitability of the planet is no longer a space for moderation and compromise. While we can criticize and debunk their claims, we need to be careful not to legitimize them. If you have a large platform, don’t share it or promote clickbait-y debates. When David Frum debated Steve Bannon, Bannon was objectively a better performer, using humor and relatability to package his white supremacy into a compelling package while Frum struggled to find a personality. I dislike Frum for other reasons, namely that I think he represents neoliberal, capitalist interests, but this debate did him no favors. 

Middle ground: there is none. 

Deniers may try to lead you to a conclusion presuming that both sides had good arguments and the truth is somewhere in the middle. Don’t consider this a win. If they draw you into this territory, it’s just a more polite way to delegitimize the views of climate scientists. By ending in an imaginary middle ground, you grant credence to the idea that climate scientists are alarmists, overblowing the effect of global warming. 

Related Post: When Political Correctness Hurts the Sustainability Movement

Finding common ground doesn’t mean you need to agree that their views have merit, you need to find other ways to connect with them on a human level. Understanding isn’t the same thing as co-signing an ideology. The political center likes to believe in its supposed intellectual superiority and ideological restraint, but that in and of itself is an ideology. In this case, the objectively true and morally correct opinion is that climate change is happening and needs to be addressed. You can use your common humanity and its accompanying fear, desire to be loved, and limited tools for understanding the world around us. 

Redirect their anti-elite rhetoric 

One of the things I find most exploitable about this way of thinking is that they don’t trust “the elite” who are trying to create a new world order or promote “globalism” (that’s a dog whistle, just in case there was any question). However, there IS a global elite that’s actively trying to manipulate them – the global economic elite. 

Yes, the owners of multinational corporations who have the most to lose from government intervention and environmental regulation, and they’re also the ones silently paying to promote denialist rhetoric. These billionaires and the companies they run, the nonprofits they fund, and the politicians they lobby are an appropriate target for populist ire. Bring that up. “If you don’t trust university professors, you certainly must also take umbrage with the rich men (they really are mostly men) who are actively trying to misinform you in order to stay rich,” you might say. 

Facts vs Research Methods

Their denial or “skepticism” begins with ideology and retroactively finds individual facts or single studies to reaffirm the beliefs they already wished to be true. Addressing them with facts or studies will just leave you frustrated. They’ll believe it’s skewed just as their own information suits their ideology (and in an ironic twist, this is almost an unconscious admission that’s what they’re doing). They might wholeheartedly reject organizations like the World Health Organization or the Union of Concerned Scientists and the information coming from them as being liberally biased. 

They might even present warped or misconstrued information to you, and when you’re not prepared to respond to it, claim that you don’t know what you’re talking about (even though they aren’t experts either) to discredit you. 

Instead of debating over whose facts are factual, ask them about their research methods. Certainly, as skeptics, they don’t take anyone at their word and read climate studies themselves (if it’s not clear, this sentence is served on a hot bed of sarcasm). You won’t get them to trust the so-called liberal elite, but you can at least get them to be skeptical of right-wing pundits or at least try reading some of the science.

Understand why they’re appealing

People who are persuaded by climate denialists are clearly motivated by a self-preservation of their own ideology. Beyond that, the trappings of intellectual superiority make these people appealing. We’re the real rebels, they say. Shapiro even once claimed that coming out as conservative is tantamount as coming out as gay. Their audience wants to feel like mavericks or rebels while reinforcing the things they already believe. We can capitalize on that.

Not that being an environmentalist makes you automatically morally superior, but we can put on that façade, too. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Reinforcing current societal norms isn’t punk rock. Buying into clearly false and easily debunked claims don’t make you a maverick. It makes you a puppet of the global multinational business elite who laugh at the gullible plebs while flying around a world they know they’re polluting and don’t care.

Finally, be mindful of emotional labor

Again, don’t debate people in circles and don’t go about trying to change the minds of radical ideologues. Focus on stopping the flow of new people into their circle and find the persuadable among them. Emotional labor is real and expecting the already marginalized to challenge one’s willing ignorance is a form of violence. If you wish to debate a denier or combat them in your personal influence, these philosophical musings might help prepare you to debate in a way that doesn’t leave you entirely frustrated.

Recommending reading:

Feature image of Ben Shapiro speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Credit: Gage Skidmore.?

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