Monday, 2 September 2013

Climate change: where stereotypes go to die

What do you mean when you call someone a climate sceptic? I went to a panel discussion last Thursday evening, “Tackling scepticism: How can we most effectively communicate climate change?” which despite the confrontational title, was an enjoyable debate touching on how people on different sides of a sometimes polarised climate debate think of, and treat, each other.

The event started with the audience being invited to name experiences of scepticism by the chair, Ed Gillespie (who’s also blogged about the evening here). This ended up looking rather like a list of types of climate sceptics (see picture). Initially, this exercise rang some alarm bells for me. It mainly served to demonstrate that, rather than one single stereotype of “climate sceptic” or “climate denier”, there are many possible stereotypes. But they are still stereotypes.

The list of types of sceptic.
Source: Futerra blog
In the event, though, I found it useful to see such a list out in the open. A couple of people suggested that many of the stereotypes could easily be turned on their head and applied to the green movement in general or advocates of low-carbon policies in particular. It reminded me that we all instinctively like to put people in categories. We can dish it out but it's a bit harder to take it.

It may be human nature to create them, but caricatures – whomever they are about – can easily do more harm than good, especially when applied to views about a complex problem. They can be fun, even affectionate, or cathartic, but not very productive in the end. What they leave out, or don’t address enough, is a proper engagement with people’s values and what they want the future to look like.


These are things that have been unjustly neglected in parts of the climate debate. Chris Rapley of UCL, on the panel, suggested that two people, given the same information, may end up with different views of what they think is happening and how to respond. I would add that in another scenario, two people with access to the same information might select or prioritise different parts of it. Rather than jumping to portray them as a ‘denier’ or ‘alarmist’, we might ask what politics, values and assumptions lie behind these different visions. The aim should not be to erase these differences or try to convert everyone to our values, or to pretend that climate is a technical issue that we can solve by the application of enough science.

The types of questions that the STEPS Centre specialises in are useful here, I think (although I guess I’m biased). Rather than simply asking “what should we do about climate change”, it’s useful to examine how the people in the conversation frame the issue, what their values and assumptions are, and what they imagine about the future. It also doesn’t hurt to recognise that none of us are in possession of the full facts, and the climate (like many other problems) is as complex and unpredictable as a toddler's birthday party in the way it interacts with other systems. Climate change may be a phenomenon where nature behaves in a way we wouldn’t wish it to: but it is also a human problem – we have to respond to it as citizens and communities with different desires, livelihoods and motivations. Climate change is political, as my SPRU colleague Alice Bell (also on the panel) put it. (Edit: Alice has summarised her opening comments at the event in a blog post for New Left Project.)

Climate change isn't always recognised equally by all as a problem. But even if it were, rather than just asking “what now”, we can ask (in Andy Stirling’s words) “which direction”, “who says”, “why?” and "who benefits?" This is not to say all opinions or options are equally valid, or that all commentators are innocently impartial (be they of the green persuasion or otherwise). If you’re in favour of action to mitigate climate change, for example, consider that climate is one of the justifications used to appropriate so-called “underused, marginal” land for biochar and biofuels projects at the expense of poor people. On the other side, an overly laid-back view of climate change can be an excuse for a stagnant, short-sighted energy policy.

As Chris Rapley pointed out, characterisations of the other as “sad, mad or bad” are usually over-the-top and applied too easily. Yes, there is extremism and ignorance among non-greens and greens alike. But ill-tempered arguments can quickly spiral out of control and it takes a disproportionate amount of time to rebuild trust. Politeness may be stifling, but respect is worth pursuing. This is not a recipe for a naïve debate where anything goes. It’s a reminder that sometimes it is worth stepping back and asking different questions before rushing to judgement.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.

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