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Polarizing/Politicizing the Climate Change Debate


Climate skeptics have been successful for a while in keeping the debate in the realm of forensics as opposed to deliberation. While people are quibbling over whether or not climate change is happening, it is happening unabated. Part of the problem is political polarization, where one’s position on climate change is an issue of party loyalty instead of environmental protection. Republicans are more likely to be climate deniers and to doubt the authority of science as a source of knowledge. They have been a frequent source of denialist arguments, often valuing short-term economics over long-term benefits.

Photograph of Inhofe’s book retrieved from

Perhaps most well-known is Senator James Inhofe (R -OK), who authored: The Greatest Hoax on EarthHow the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens your Future. Science is made out to be nothing more than the magic of fortune tellers, fake and exaggerated. Perhaps one of the most chilling tendencies of denialist politicians is the frequent attempt to legislate against knowledge and action to mitigate climate change. A classic example is North Carolina’s attempt to make predicting sea level rises illegal in the state (in order to prevent the de-valuing of its coastal properties).

More recently, an amendment was passed by the House of Representatives that will make it impossible to use Department of Defense funding for mitigating potential security risks due to climate change. Despite the fact that many scientists predict mass migration, global political upheaval, and even war as potential consequences, the DoD would no longer be able to fund to prevent these possibilities. In this situation, politics is muddying the waters between political efficacious and the cold, hard facts. One cannot legislate away the consequences and navel-gaze to the point of forestalling the future.

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Funding has previously been cut from science programs, specifically those that address the environment and the climate. After the ClimateGate scandal (where emails between members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were leaked and misconstrued), the Science, Space, and Technology Committee heard testimony to defund and de-teeth the Environmental Protection Agency. At the testimony, Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) said, “the reluctance to engage in conversations with people who have doubts or question the veracity of climate science is at the heart of the wrongdoing that undermines trust in climate change science.”

This statement reflects a well-known strategy of skeptics to manufacture controversy where there is none. Instead of allowing for the scientific process to remove inaccurate theories and move forward with the best information, climate denialists (and other scientific skeptics such as creationists) attempt to play to values of scientific competition, uncertainty, and free exchange of ideas. Denialists tend to co-opt these values in order to maintain their validity in the eyes of public. At some point, you just have to let alchemy go. Climate denialists need to go the way of alchemists, astrologists, and geocentrists.

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The issue is the potential strategy to engage with them, move them forward into an acceptance of science. Oftentimes, the frameworks of skeptics are amazingly difficult to change. Their entire frame of mind, the narrative for which their life makes sense, and their guiding values, may be in complete contradiction with those of science. How to persuade them, then? What language can we use? Perhaps one tactic is to speak the conservative, economic language. Emphasizing long term economic gains could be a way to overcome apathy and a reluctance to act. This path, however, still faces the challenge of convincing people that sacrifice is honorable. Perhaps another tactic would be creation care, or the uniting of environmental protection with moral imperatives. This, however, may not be as successful with non-religious conservatives who might find spiritually-charged language as persuasive.

It is quite one thing to keep the debate to whether or not climate change is happening and to actively work to stop preventative measures. These measures are becoming ever more likely and certain as more and more data reveal the consequences of climate change. With weather patterns changings and becoming more severe, it remains to be seen what will actually shift the conversation and be convicning enough for people to abandon their loyalties to antiquated party values and their purse strings in order to embrace the scientific facts about our inevitable changing way of life.


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