Combating Climate Change - And Responding to Skeptics

Climate change is a highly contentious issue. Well, not entirely. The distance between climate “skeptics” and climate “believers” can be measured only in percentages of estimated probabilities. From the way the issue is typically framed in the media, one would think that battle lines are drawn and forces are lined up in adamant opposition. But that’s not the way it really is – or should be.

Scientists are skeptics by nature. Those who contributed to the Fifth Assessment Report – the latest in a series of assessments of scientific research on climate change prepared by the United Nations-established Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – are no exception. Numerous discussions and disagreements lay behind the production of the so-called consensus report. The end result projects temperature changes by the end of the century ranging from virtually no change to an increase of 10⁰F.

Nevertheless, the climate-change threat is real, even if it is only a matter of probabilities. What action we should take, and how action should be brought about, are knotty problems. Harvard Business School’s Business and Environment Initiative (BEI) says they can be attacked with a business approach.

Two separate climate change debates

There are two separate climate-change debates. At the root of this division is the difference between scientists and advocates.

Several years ago, I attended an excellent talk by MIT professor Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist and prominent contributor to the third and fourth IPCC Assessment Reports. She gave a 15-minute talk showing why she believed it was highly likely that climate change was occurring and that it was anthropogenic (caused by human activities). Her talk was, in my opinion, far more effective than Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth.

The audience – inclined to be sympathetic – was overwhelmed by the power of the presentation. Afterwards, an attendee asked Solomon the inevitable question: Why don’t you devote your prodigious persuasive powers to climate-change advocacy?

Solomon just shook her head quietly. She would not become an advocate; advocacy was not for scientists.

The problem with advocacy is that it does not deal in uncertainties and probabilities, as climate-change science does. It attempts to influence public opinion through media that have little time or patience for turgid scientific distinctions. Hence, it gravitates toward ardently asserted certainties, not tentativeness and nuance. And though two advocate-scientists may express certainties that are only a few percentage-point differences of probabilities apart, they will seem strongly at odds.

Thus the debate hurtles down the slippery slope toward polarization, in a sound-bite-media intermediated information economy.