GREEN

The Depressing Tactic That Turned Climate Science Into An Ideological Battleground

It all hinged on the climate equivalent of 'Stop The Boats'.

22/08/2017 3:29 PM AEST | Updated 22/08/2017 3:31 PM AEST
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The science (on the fact we're causing global warming) is settled, but sadly, the (false) debate is not over.

It never had to be this way. The very frame of a "debate" around basic climate science is a false construct. Climate skeptics on one side of politics, people who accept the science on the other side -- the divide didn't happen by accident.

So how did we get here? Well, according to Australian physicist and science communication expert John Cook, certain Republicans in the U.S. deliberately seeded doubts about climate science.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, climate science was not a partisan issue. The right accepted the science just as much as the left," Cook explained in part 2 of his chat with HuffPost Australia for our Breaking The Ice podcast.

"In fact, George H.W. Bush, the first Bush president, said that he was going to "fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect", so it was [originally] a bipartisan issue.

Brian Snyder / Reuters
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"What happened in the 1990s was conservative think tanks whose whole ideology was opposing regulation and supporting free markets -- they didn't want to see regulation of polluting industries like the fossil fuel industry.

"They had two ways they could have gone. They could have advocated for free market policy approaches, or they could have attacked the climate science. They opted to go with attacking the climate science.

"That persistent decades-long misinformation campaign against the science gradually polarised the situation. The polarisation didn't happen by accident. It wasn't inevitable. It was a deliberate campaign and very successful."

The whole of part 2 of our podcast with John Cook is above. In part 1 (which you can listen to by clicking this link), Cook talked about the U.S. political strategist Frank Luntz, and how he helped set the attack on climate science in motion.

"One of his most famous quotes was if you want to get a message across, you say it over and over and over and over again, until you're sick to death of saying it. And only then people are hearing it for the first time," Cook said.

Any Australian familiar with the phrase "Stop The Boats" will no doubt understand this concept very well. And as Cook explained, Luntz then put his theory into practice after doing market research on climate change for the Republican Party in the 1990s.

"Based on his research, he advised the Republicans 'if you want to win the debate on climate policy, in other words, prevent climate action, just cast doubt on the consensus'.

"So those two pieces of advice: Attack the consensus and [attack it] repeatedly, those have been key strategies of opponents of climate action for the past few decades."

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John Cook knows better than anyone how attacking the scientific consensus is a weapon that undermines public trust in climate science. The Virginia-based Australian produced the renowned 2013 study which established the 97 percent consensus among climate scientists who acknowledge the reality of human-caused global warming.

That's an incredibly high figure when you consider that 97 percent of scientists agree on virtually nothing short of the theory of gravity. Yet the consensus continues to be attacked, as does the science itself. And just as strategists like Frank Luntz planned, free marketeers ended up on the side of the climate change denialists.

"What has happened is that climate change has become a tribal issue," Cook said. "So if you believe in free, unregulated markets, your tribe -- all the people in your 'in group' -- don't accept climate science.

"And so that other 'out group' -- those strange weirdos that believe something different to you -- they accept climate science, so obviously they must be wrong, and therefore the science must be wrong.

"It's a very toxic and problematic situation."

It is indeed, and the situation appears unlikely to change any time soon. That said, John Cook is doing what he can with his online course entitled Making Sense of Climate Denial. You might also revisit the advice we published recently on how to talk climate science with that person in your life who just won't listen.

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