“Clean coal.” “Ethical oil.” How could fossil fuels that produce pollution which sickens, kills, and hospitalizes tens of thousands of Americans each year end up sounding so … desirable?
Jim Hoggan, founder of DeSmog, watched these industry-funded campaigns — and an increasingly toxic public discourse around climate change — unfold in the U.S. and Canada and wondered the same thing.
As Hoggan told an audience of earth and climate scientists at the American Geophysical Union conference today, “These campaigns are not so much about persuasion as they are about polarization, about dividing us.”
When he first founded DeSmog in 2005, Hoggan thought that the reason people denied the legitimacy of climate science was because they just didn’t have enough information or didn’t have the right information.
But the more he examined this issue, he realized it wasn’t about misinformation. It was primarily about disinformation.
“I wanted to find out how misinformation campaigns work, how we came to a time when facts don’t matter and how we can start having real public conversations again. So I began to explore how these tendencies arise, what spurs us to become close-minded, aggressively vitriolic and most importantly, what we can do about it. I also began to analyze how we can become highly effective communicators, deflect over-the-top advocacy and make our arguments more convincing …
I’m Right and You’re an Idiot explains why facts alone don’t lead people to the right decisions; how language is manipulated; how people’s voices are “stolen” or silenced and what that means for democracy. It explains why modern messaging fails, why we are susceptible to misinformation and how trust networks are destroyed.”
He realized that the strategy of those putting out anti-science propaganda is to pollute the public discourse. They accomplish this by arguing that there are no clear facts and no objectivity.
Instead, they argue that “everyone is just trying to manipulate you for their own interests.”
If you thought climate scientists were trying to manipulate you, why would you listen to their alarming reports about melting sea ice and acidifying oceans? Why would you vote for elected officials who prioritize taking actions to address climate change?
As Hoggan pointed out, the organizations denying the science of climate change — like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Heartland Institute — don’t have to completely convince the public that climate change isn’t real in order to kill political will on the issue.
They just have to sow the seeds of doubt about climate science, which President-elect Donald Trump has echoed in his false statements that “nobody really knows” if climate change is happening.
Unfortunately, climate science deniers have been fairly successful in introducing that doubt and slowing down progress on addressing the causes and impacts of climate change.
These kinds of divisive tactics move Americans into so-called “tribes” with others like themselves — Republicans, Democrats, urban, rural, people of color, whites.
Hoggan described how our brains have evolved to form these teams of “us” versus “them” and how that informs the decisions we make about something like the degree to which humans are causing climate change, an issue that is more politically polarized than ever.
Divided as we are, what kind of hope is there that facts and unity, rather than disinformation and division, will prevail?
As social scientists have shown, facts don’t change minds. That means people on every part of the political spectrum need to instead focus on attempting to sincerely listen and understand each other.
“This is about rebuilding trust and learning to talk about these problems in a way that really matters to people,” said Hoggan.
In the course of researching his book, Hoggan interviewed Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who left him with a message that reverberates with empathy, a sentiment not often found in the antagonistic public discourse of today.
“Speak the truth, but not to punish,” said Hanh.
In other words, once people stop vilifying the “other side,” they leave themselves open to realize that “the other side” is composed of real people who have actual concerns and even shared values.
That is the point, a place of mutual respect and trust, where we can return to real conversations about real issues that affect us all. Like climate change.
Main image credit: James Hoggan speaks at AGU, by DeSmog