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Ten reasons for the muddying of the climate change discussion

Sitra's Vesa-Matti Lahti examines the main reasons why the debate on climate change so often loses its way...


Vesa-Matti Lahti

Senior Lead, Foresight and Strategy


In December 2013, Sitra published a climate report entitled How can Finland cope in a world over four degrees warmer? (only available in Finnish). The report presented one possible future scenario. Its goal was to initiate a discussion of the possible risks posed by global warming to Finnish society at the end of this century, if the grim scientific climate change scenarios become reality as a result of growing emission rates. The underlying idea was to stimulate discussion, which in turn could lead to the introduction of new measures for mitigating climate change and improved methods of preventative adaptation.

Our report has gained its own fair share of publicity. While some of the media commentary was positive or at least appropriate in nature, the more attention-grabbing element of it was off base. And maybe because of that some of the feedback that reached Sitra was close to vulgar. We were dubbed “fanatics“ by some, while others urged us to visit North Korea to see what it’s like to live in a country that, like Sitra, so we were told, disseminates lying propaganda. Needless to say, the discussion of this serious subject did not get off to a flying start.

General media coverage on climate change has succeeded in making the concept almost universally familiar. Many agree that it is a problem that will need to be addressed at some point. However, there has been a failure to bring about effective changes in policy. While discussion has already begun, it has often become muddied or resulted in confusion. Words have not led to action, at least not very effectively.

Why does the discussion on climate change tend to become muddled or create so much tension? Or why do people avoid getting involved in the discussion in the first place? Below is a list of ten explanations for this. Everyone can choose their favourite (or least favourite) from among them, and pause to consider how we might improve the atmosphere of the climate change discussion.

1) Impartiality is misunderstood by the media. One issue leading the discussion astray has been reporters’ unbalanced view of impartiality. When a researcher who specialises in the greenhouse theory is interviewed or a story is published on a report on the possible risks posed by climate change, for reasons of impartiality the related media coverage always includes the opinion of a sceptic.

For example, the Finnish newspaper Turun Sanomat ran a major story on Sitra’s December climate report, in which the only person evaluating the report – and, in practice, shooting it down – was Pasi J. Matilainen, a notorious climate change sceptic. He was introduced in the story as “the president of an NGO”. The NGO (non-governmental organisation) in question is Ilmastofoorumi ry, an association providing a forum for climate debate. To ordinary newspaper readers, this might appear to be an expert organisation. However, at least judging from the tone adopted by its president, it represents an extremist viewpoint according to which the scientific evidence does not show that humans are having any impact on climate change.

Unfortunately, such unbalanced impartiality in the media only serves to uphold an ethos of uncertainty. After all, with respect to the broad outlines of the climate issue, science has long been almost totally unanimous: humans are clearly having an impact on climate change. And yet, a small group of sceptics are often allotted column inches or airtime on an equal basis to the mainstream views of the scientific community. Journalist Pasi Toiviainen, who has written extensively on communicating on climate change in his blog published on the website of the Finnish broadcasting company Yle has made the following wry observation: “In a similar spirit, all discussions of issues such as evolution should give a hearing to supporters of intelligent design, and discussions on the holocaust to holocaust deniers. Right?”

2) It only takes a small minority to poison the discussion. What may look like a significant number of climate sceptics to those following the discussion may be just a very small group in whose case opinion abounds but evidence is scant.

Reddit is a popular North American online forum where anyone can voice their opinion on a topic of their choosing. Its scientific section, Science Forum, is a platform for discussing scientific issues. It is run under slightly different rules to those usually applied in online discussions. The Science Forum’s discussions generally resemble scientific debate. There are almost always numerous links to peer-reviewed science to support positions and participants don’t intentionally mislead others or distort the facts.

Recently, the forum had to issue bans to climate change deniers. According to one of the site’s moderators, Nathan Allen, the reason for this was that the subject was the most problematic on the forum. Of course, other topics also raised heated discussions, such as the theory of evolution or the benefits and risks of vaccinations, but the discussions on climate change quickly escalated into battles that were no longer based on scientific research, and deniers quickly became aggressive. For some reason, they were blind to the deliberate, cherry-picking one-sidedness of their arguments, or the way in which their views resembled conspiracy theories. They kept claiming that peer-reviewed research had been corrupted, yet at the same time viewed the blogs of organisations supported by the fossil fuel industry as sources of objective, factual information.

Allen says that, as a scientist, he came to realise that climate change deniers were incapable of presenting sufficient scientific arguments to support their scepticism. According to Allen, legitimate debate on new scientific observations is continuously under way on various scientific forums, but despite decades of scientifically tested and verified data on climate change, the theory was being questioned without proper grounds – which is, of course, unfortunate also for those who question climate change in a rational and fact-based manner. The result of groundless arguments was an anti-scientific, anti-rational stance which served only to disrupt the conversation.

“When 97 percent of climate scientists agree that man is changing the climate, we would hope the comments would at least acknowledge if not reflect such widespread consensus,” Allen writes in an article published in December 2013 in the online versions of the Huffington Post and Grist, an environmental publication.

Because Reddit is committed to upholding the ideals of freedom of speech, the administrators of its science section were afraid that the bans would cause bad blood amongst forum participants and result in accusations of violations of freedom of speech. However, this did not occur. In the wake of the bans, the atmosphere of the discussion on climate change became more matter-of-fact. The administrators also noticed that the number of people who had disrupted the discussions were lower than expected. Only a few people had been responsible for contributing the most unpleasant comments and misleading information to discussions followed by millions of people.

3) The school of thought “there have always been predictors of the Apocalypse, but it has yet to happen” is a powerful one. Its teachings view climate change as nothing more than a new threat scenario, repeating the same pattern as its predecessors. According to those who sign up to this school of thought, because there have always been and will always be doomsday prophets, there is no need to take climate change seriously.

This may be one of the reasons why reporters working for tabloids resorted to scare stories when writing features about Sitra’s report. For example, one reporter interviewed me in my role as a Sitra representative in a matter-of-fact manner, but afterwards e-mailed me to say that the story would be presented from a “horror scenario” slant. Although the body of the text was factual, the story’s sensationalist headline and choice of images (which may have been put together by someone other than the reporter) gave an odd flavour to the end result. Somehow, they had found a picture of me smiling with tousled hair, a bit like a mad scientist character, which ran totally counter to the seriousness of the subject, while the front page featured images of riot police and barbed wire, while over-sized headlines screamed: “Grim future scenarios for Finland”, “City riots to become more common”, “Storms and floods abound”, “The wealthy retreat behind walls”. No wonder then that, as soon as he had seen the story, minister Alexander Stubb tweeted the following to his tens of thousands of followers on Twitter: “Remember to prepare for the Apocalypse.”

Sensationalist and eye-catching headlines may well be better than neutral and no-nonsense ones at selling newspapers and magazines, but this muddies the waters of the climate change discussion even more. This story, which together with its layout combined scare tactics and a kind of tongue-in-cheek humour, was enough to set a minister joking about the end of the world, regardless of the fact that the original report never mentioned any such thing. Instead, it presented a possible future scenario for Finland and life in 2080 on the basis of the continued growth of climate emissions at today’s worrying pace. At worst, the questionable publicity given by tabloids to the issue, i.e. the half-joking deployment of overblown threat scenarios, elicits a counter-reaction from people, leading them to deny the whole phenomenon.

4) Supporters of the ‘End of the world is in God’s hands, not man’s’ school of thought are sensitive and react easily. Somehow, to a certain extent, envisioning threat scenarios seems to be part of human nature – major religions have been mulling over the Apocalypse for centuries. For some, there may even be a psychological need to do so. For others, to refer to something as extremely worrying as climate change as a human-induced phenomenon is akin to blasphemy – many are of the view that only God is in a position to influence issues of such magnitude. Perhaps this was the underlying thought of those who mentioned their personal faith in God in many of the messages we received that were critical of our report.

5) With regard to climate change, both exaggeration and understatement are exceptionally easy. Because climate change is a long-term process, curves predicting temperatures, glacier size or sea levels are subject to wide variation. Those who choose to believe in one end of the range of possible outcomes tend to dismiss those who cling to the other end. In addition, because the variations in the current weather conditions and in the actual temperature curves are also great, the current weather at any given time, or the average temperature during a relatively short period, seems to easily lead many to believe in one extreme or the other.

The international research community responsible for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports has drafted different scenarios predicting the progress of climate change (ranging from extremely environmentally friendly scenarios to “business-as-usual” scenarios in which the economic growth is solid and the growth of greenhouse gas emissions has not been stopped). According to the IPCC’s most recent future scenarios, compared to today’s figures, the lowest and highest rises in the average global temperature by 2100 fall roughly between 0 and 5 degrees. If one wants to work with the average values of different scenarios, then the predicted rises fall roughly between 1 and 4 degrees. Furthermore, it is predicted that temperatures in Finland will change by more than the average global temperature. 

It is often easy to criticise the news on climate change for sensationalism, forgetting that understatement is equally possible. It is also possible that exaggerations by the opposite camp are being stretched to the point of absurdity in order to render one’s own opinions more convincing.

6) Taking climate change seriously leads us into moral dilemmas. Because taking climate change science seriously quickly leads to the conclusion that current forms of road and air travel, for example, have an adverse affect on climate change, it feels easier simply to dismiss the whole notion. Since most of us drive cars and travel by aeroplane, taking climate change seriously would, potentially, give us a guilty conscience. And who wants that? Another perturbing moral dilemma may affect supporters of global justice: we wealthy Westerners are the worst generators of emissions, but the citizens of many developing countries will be the first to suffer the consequences of climate change.

7) The sensation of freedom is threatened and emotions run high. One explanation for the stickiness of the discussion on climate change relates to freedom of the individual. Driving and lifestyle choices are generally considered to form part of this freedom. People tend to become irritated when one touches on these issues, or induces feelings of guilt about them. Many climate change deniers feel highly irritated by “environmentalist hippies”. The latter are viewed as sanctimonious, since they highlight various issues related to our lifestyles. If an “environmental hippie” makes comments on climate change, many close their ears – perhaps more due to who is saying it than to what is being said.

Emotions have run high in both directions. On both sides of the discussion, anonymous comments made on the internet, in particular, are often too caustic. For example, reporters who have pointed to uncertainties regarding climatology have also become targets of exceptionally large amounts of overblown negative feedback. And when emotions run high, the one on the receiving end can unintentionally misunderstand what is being said. This naturally hinders agreement or the achievement of compromise.

8) In today’s society, economic growth and environmental protection are in conflict. The correlation between total climate emissions and GDP (gross domestic product) makes it difficult for those pursuing economic growth (for example, most of today’s decision-makers) to take climate change seriously. The most worrying scenarios drafted by the IPCC are those that predict the outcome of brisk economic growth. For those who believe that there is no alternative to economic growth, there is a great temptation to sweep climate issues under the carpet. An in-depth discussion is not welcome due to the underlying threat that this will lead to questioning one’s own social views and having to support radical changes to the economic system. Many find this an insurmountable obstacle.

9) Limited opportunities for having a personal influence renders people passive. Because, based on their own experience, ordinary people have limited opportunities for influencing the progress of climate change and global climate emission levels, they feel little inclination to join the discussion on the issue. One actor with an interest in climate policy, the Finnish Green Party MP Oras Tynkkynen, has said that “in addition to crisis awareness, we need hope and willpower.” To this we might also add: clear opportunities for action!

10) Voicing an opinion on climate change can lead to heated debates. The famous American environmental journalist David Roberts says that many opinion leaders shrink from voicing their opinions on climate change because identifying it as a threat is likely to provoke attacks from climate change sceptics, who demand a debate on some particular detail or other within this vast area. Many – particularly those untrained in climatology – find the mere thought of such a debate overwhelming. For this reason, figures who are frequently in the limelight tend to avoid the subject.

However, all of the above obstacles to engaging in a lively discussion on climate change can be overcome. Even Sitra’s climate report has finally come to the attention of analytical readers – among them, representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which is currently revising Finland’s National Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change. To prevent the stagnation of the discussion on adaptation to climate change, and on its mitigation in particular, we must take note of the reasons presented above on why this discussion has become bogged down.

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