Talking About Climate Change: It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

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Perhaps you have found yourself talking to someone about Earth justice and climate change. Suddenly, you notice their eyes have started to glaze over and they are looking around the room for someone — anyone! — else to talk to. How can a person who appears to have a functioning brain not understand that a catastrophic changed in the Earth’s climate is speeding our way and we are standing in the middle of the railroad track urging it on? Can anyone really be that clueless?

Sheldon Whitehouse
Image credit: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

The answer lies in messaging, as has been artfully explained by political author George Lakoff. For many, the issue is not what is said, but rather how it is presented. “People routinely ignore facts on a whole host of issues, including climate change,” Deborah Lynn Guber, an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont, tells Grist. “So if Democrats base their strategy on facts, then that’s a problem.”

Guber and her colleagues analyzed millions of words from Congressional floor speeches about climate change during the period 1996 until 2015. With the aid of machine learning, they discovered that Republicans and Democrats talk about the issue in starkly different terms. Democrats tend to be logical and rely on facts from the scientific community. Republicans tend to spin stories about personal experiences that elicit an emotional response.

Take Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the man who brought a snowball in to the Senate chamber to “prove” there is no such thing as global warming. (A separate question is, how can a US Senator be so uneducated that he doesn’t know the difference between weather and climate?) The stunt was about as stupid a trick as anything ever seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos, and yet it got wide press coverage because it evoked a strong emotional response from people who vote for politicians like James Inhofe.

“That’s a prime example of using that vivid imagery to communicate something about climate change that certainly isn’t true but the truth of it doesn’t really matter to the audience,” Guber says. The research was published recently in the journal Environmental Politics.

Another research study by 4 Canadian researchers suggests many liberals are more willing to change their minds based on the value liberals tend to place on science and skepticism, while conservatives are more likely to stick to their guns — which shows a linkage to a respect for tradition and religious beliefs.

Guber says her research shows Democrats may be trying to appeal to a broader swath of the public by framing the climate crisis as a threat to public health and national security and connecting that to religious stewardship. They are also spreading the message that tackling climate change is a powerful force for job creation. In fact, a recent study in Australia finds that a dollar spent on renewable energy will create three times as many jobs as a dollar spent on propping up the fossil fuel industry. “The hope is if Democrats can find a way of being emotionally engaging on climate change while avoiding some of the triggers that speak to partisanship, then they’ll do well,” Guber says

The difference is that Republicans have no compunction about telling lies to their audience. Those lies have powerful emotional undertones to them, leading to what many refer to as “dog whistle politics.” Dogs hear sounds that are far above the range of human hearing. By crafting elaborate fairy tales that mesh with the preconceived notions of conservative voters, politicians can appear to rational and reasonable while still evoking a strong emotional response in their constituents.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island has been a powerful champion of Earth justice during his years in Washington and has made some 250 speeches on the floor of the Senate advocating for urgent action on climate change. His has been a lonely and disappointing quest, often leaving him with the feeling that he is speaking to an empty room. In fact, many times the Senate chamber is empty while such speeches are being delivered. Senators are free to give speeches whenever they feel the need, but other Senators are also free to ignore them if they choose.

Whitehouse (what a great name for a presidential candidate!) tells Grist his lonely vigil may be starting to bear fruit. Last year, Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, joined Whitehouse during one of his climate speeches, the first time a Republican had done so.“I think there are at least a dozen Republican senators who would like to participate in that discussion and do something positive that actually solves the problem,” Whiehouse told E&E News last July.

Oddly, the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords takes effect on November 4, the day after the next US election. Much will depend on the outcome of that vote. If the current occupant of the Oval Office is tossed into the dumpster — a fate he richly deserves — more Republicans may add their voices to those of Whitehouse and Cassidy. Then the US could get back to being a leader on climate change among the world’s nations. Will that happen? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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