Playing to Win on Climate Change

In the October 16, New York TimesWeek in Review,” former President Bill Clinton says Republican stances questioning climate change make us “look like a joke, right?” Three pages later, Frank Bruni states that Jon Huntsman’s recognition of climate change doesn’t make him a moderate; it makes him “sentient.” Good lines, but sharp words like these hurt, rather than help, with public support for addressing climate change in America.

The article quoting President Clinton, by Elizabeth Rosenthal, states that Americans “are suspicious of scientists.” But Americans actually hold scientists in high regard, second only to firefighters and way ahead of doctors, nurses, teachers, clergy, and lawyers, according to statistics of the National Science Foundation from last year.

What Americans don’t like is to be lectured. Whether or not the Earth is warming (it is) or whether people are causing the change (they almost certainly are contributing), Americans don’t like to be nagged, talked down to, or called names. Public relations professionals and cultural cognition researchers explain that persuasion in the U.S. is best served with empathy for what those listening believe, and by messengers who live in the same cultural space.

Perhaps the only way to significantly change American views on climate change is to invest in the education and cultural life of the next generation. If that’s not done, we may find ourselves still running in place 25 years from now. But in addition to looking to the future, we should avoid demeaning criticisms in the present, and not be shy about acknowledging uncertainties in science. Isn’t questioning authority part of critical thinking? We should also find better ways to translate science into language that communicates the harm that will come to families on drying farms in the Southwest, hunters and fishermen whose favorite wetlands will disappear, or people in communities on the coasts whose fresh drinking water will turn salty as sea level rises. America produces a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases, and without American support, the global war on climate change will not be won. Why not play to win and do more than just look smart?