How to make the climate change debate more productive

The climate change debate is a battle of attrition with a habit of getting nasty. Both sides in the debate (climate scientists and those that are sceptical of the science) are equally stubborn and there tends to be little room for conciliation of the opposing standpoints. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In research carried out with Candice Howarth of Anglia Ruskin University, I find that there is actually some middle ground to be found. In fact, I go as far to suggest that climate scientists and those who are sceptical of climate change may not be so different after all. People on both sides the debate can be motivated by the same things, and embracing these personal similarities could help break the deadlock.

Finding common ground

For starters, both sides participate in the debate through a strong sense of duty to publicly engage and share their views. This is underpinned by a desire to do the right thing for society (the right thing is, of course, influenced strongly by someone’s political outlook).

Secondly, many of the individuals I interviewed also agreed that it is challenging to achieve complete certainty about the various causes and consequences of climate change. Translating that understanding into policy making adds further challenges.

So instead of focusing on differences of opinion, more emphasis can be placed on identifying and discussing these common viewpoints. That way, the climate change debate can avoid its usual pitfalls of antagonism and incivility.

It could be possible for a climate scientist and a sceptic to have a constructive debate by focussing on their shared recognition that certainty is a challenging concept. There is no need to discuss areas where conflict is likely to be greatest (such as the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global temperature increases).

Asking the right question

Our research also argues that the climate change debate often involves the wrong people. A clear theme from interviews with both groups was the central role of political factors in the climate change debate. Recognising differing political viewpoints can steer debate clear of an unproductive conflict over the science, when the real issue is about policy.

For example, in Australia, a group of politicians has recently called on the government to conduct a public debate about climate science. Among the topics up for debate was the question of whether or not the science is settled. It is unlikely that these politicians were truly interesting in physics and chemistry. It’s more likely they wanted to talk politics and about the implications what human induced climate change means for Australia. Making this debate explicit is vital if truly constructive discussion is to be achieved.

I hope that there can be a more constructive dialogue about climate change. It is a complex, multifaceted issue for which easy answers are not to be found. And it needs to be recognised as such.

Those active in the climate debate would do well to think less about how they are different to those with whom they disagree. Instead, they could think critically about their own motivations and viewpoints. They may have more in common with their opponent than they thought.

Amelia Sharman and Candice Howarth’s paper Climate stories: Why do climate scientists and sceptical voices participate in the climate debate?’ was published by the journal ‘Public Understanding of Science.