Next month, EPA chief and coal-industry darling Scott Pruitt will likely kick off a ‘Red Team, Blue Team’ “debate” on climate science. The purpose, according to Pruitt, is to establish an “objective, transparent, public review of questions and answers around the issues around carbon dioxide,” wherein a ‘red team’ of conservative pundits tries to poke holes in decades of climate research. In reality, this isn’t science. It’s theater, a one-act play put on for coal-mining executives and conservative think tanks.
The fact that scientists overwhelmingly agree humans are causing a rapid and dangerous rise in temperature should come as little comfort to advocates. Pruitt shows that for many Americans, science isn’t the strength of the climate movement. It’s the Achilles heel, and fossil fuel firms have been hacking away at it for decades.
“Scientists and advocates doubled down on this idea that more and better science is going to change the world, and we’re still dealing with the fallout,” said Joshua Howe, an environmental historian at Reed College and author of Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. “Our political strategies can’t focus exclusively on science, and that’s been the dominant trend in the last fifty years of climate change advocacy.”
Climate science is bulletproof. Climate scientists are not.
It would be hard to blame advocates for focusing on the research. The fact is that the basic science of climate change is bulletproof. Some 97 percent of climatologists agree that humans are warming the planet, as do NASA, NOAA, the EPA, the National Science Foundation, the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union, not to mention fossil fuel giants like Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, to name a few.
Scientists are as certain that carbon pollution is heating the planet as they are that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer. The science is so robust that, in 2007, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court ruled that heat-trapping carbon pollution threatens human health and that the federal government has a responsibility to regulate it. By any reasonable measure, the debate is over.
And yet, Washington is stuck in neutral on climate change. While the public has grown more and more worried about the carbon crisis, lawmakers who receive generous donations from fossil fuel firms are happy to sideline the issue. A decades-long campaign to sow doubt about climate science has given them the political cover to do so. That effort exposed the flaw in relying too heavily on research.
Since the Cold War, Howe said, Americans have expressed “a true belief in the power and beneficence of science.” Science put a man on the moon. It ended smallpox. It gave us iPhones, the Internet and Tang. For a time, scientists held sway over elected officials, so it made sense to put research at the forefront of any effort to change public policy.
In some cases, this approach worked. Science was central in the push to plug the hole in the ozone layer, for example, and that was a massive success. It was also a much smaller problem than climate change, one the required only a small number of companies to change the way they do business. Climate change, on the other hand, demands nothing less than the eventual transformation of the global energy system. By sowing doubt about climate research, conservative think tanks (funded by fossil fuel companies) have managed to stall the action needed to avert a global catastrophe.
When advocates point to the scientific consensus on climate change, right-wing groups trot out the few dissenters to make it look like there is debate. It doesn’t matter if these people are unqualified or have clear conflicts of interest. When advocates wave around the latest study on the dire math of climate change, those same groups will attempt to impugn the credibility of the study’s authors. This was the motive behind Climategate and other, more recent efforts to discredit researchers.
“[Scientists’] credibility becomes the focus of political attack when the actual knowledge that their producing runs up against political opposition,” Howe said. The Heritage Foundation, for example, will “gleefully go after what they consider liberal scientists, because they know that’s they way to cut the legs of an issue that’s been defined as a scientific one.” Other conservative think tanks take the same approach.
“The hole that scientists dug in the 70s and 80s is one that I’m not sure we can necessarily get out of, because the tactic of targeting science continues, and it’s been effective,” Howe said, adding that any “opponent of strong measures to curb CO2 emissions can simply target the science and sow doubt.”
Science is complicated. Everything else — not so much.
For anyone familiar with the science of climate change, the upward slope of the Keeling Curve portends a terrifying future. For everyone else, it’s hard to see what makes climate change so scary. “For most middle- and upper-class Americans, the immediate threat of climate change is not existential,” Howe said. “The thing that I argue for is trying to make climate change mean something in specific local and state contexts.”
Climate change is abstract and difficult to understand, but the constellation of related issues is easy to grasp. Coal is expensive. Oil pipelines are leaky. Gas drilling sites spew chemicals that make people sick. Climate change, Howe said, “will never be something you can point to. It operates at a scale that’s too big for that. You can point to things you know are impacts, but you have to use science to translate it into the cause.”
As for scientists, Howe said, “I have no problem with scientists serving as advocates. I just hope that when they do so, they recognize that they see one slice of the issue, and that’s the scientific slice.” In addition to recruiting researchers to explain climate science, advocates should enlist first responders to talk about dealing with more severe storms and wildfires, for example, or solar installers to talk about opportunities in clean energy.
“Thinking about replacing coal jobs in West Virginia with renewable energy jobs,” Howe said. “It may make sense separate from climate change.” Coal is costly. Wind and solar are getting cheaper every day. Lawmakers, for example, could create incentives for clean-energy manufacturers to set up shop in Appalachia. Advocates, Howe said, should push state and local leaders to step up on climate change.
Advocating for climate change. Four lessons.
Asked for an example of effective climate advocacy, Howe pointed to students at Syracuse University, who successfully pushed the school’s administration to divest its endowment from fossil fuels in 2015, a feat that few other universities have replicated. What makes this story particularly remarkable is that Syracuse isn’t exactly Tree Hugger U.
“We’re a big party school,” said Syracuse University environmental historian Robert Wilson — Syracuse is the number four party school in the country, according to the Princeton Review. “We would not be on Outside magazine’s list of top 20 green colleges.” And yet, student advocates won out. Wilson said their success highlights four important lessons for the climate movement:
1. Make it local.
Shortly after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, author and activist Bill McKibben came to Syracuse, “trying to drum up support for people to join the climate movement,” Wilson said. McKibben, leader of the climate advocacy group 350.org, was pushing schools, philanthropic organizations and other large institutions to divest from fossil fuels. The goal was to take away the social license of these companies, just as past divestment movements succeeded in stigmatizing tobacco firms and apartheid South Africa.
Students were primed to McKibben’s message. “Sandy had just hit the Northeast, and many students at Syracuse University are from New Jersey and New York,” Wilson said. At that precise moment, climate change was top of mind for students. They were eager to take on the companies fueling unprecedented storms like Sandy.
2. Rack up small victories.
The Syracuse divestment group didn’t go straight for the end zone. They moved the ball slowly down the field, building support for their divestment by winning small but significant victories along the way. First, they got the undergraduate student council to vote in support of divestment, Wilson said. Then, they got the graduate student council to do the same. Finally, they pushed the university senate, which included faculty and staff, to pass a resolution in favor of divestment. “They went methodically through all the legitimate political channels on campus to build support,” Wilson said.
3. Build a coalition.
In the midst of the divestment campaign, CNN contributor and progressive organizer Van Jones spoke on campus. Like McKibben, he offered a much-needed spark of inspiration. According to Wilson, Jones gathered students working on progressive issues, and “he told them, ‘You are not going to accomplish any of the things that you want to accomplish unless you work together.’”
Wilson said the divestment movement at Syracuse was overwhelmingly white, suburban and upper-middle-class, much like the broader climate movement. This is an enduring weakness of the climate movement, and one that organizers at Syracuse were determined to avoid. “Students formed an alliance with a number of different groups on campus devoted to Black Lives Matter, to disability issues, groups that were focusing on mental health,” Wilson said. They called their group the General Body.
The General Body could turn out large numbers of students to rallies and protests. That made all the difference when students held an 18-day sit-in at the administration building. “If it were [just] the divestors occupying the administration building, that would be six to ten students,” Wilson said. “But with the General Body, they had three or four dozen students sleeping there at night.” Not long after the sit-in, the university relented. “In some ways, I think that was because it was easier for the university to divest than to meet some of the other demands of these other groups on campus,” Wilson said.
4. Find the MacGuffin
A MacGuffin is a plot device in film, typically an object that the characters are chasing down. “In all of those stories in movies the real purpose of the MacGuffin is to bring a group of people together,” Wilson said. George Lucas, for example, has said that, in Star Wars, R2-D2 is a MacGuffin. The droid holds the plans to the Death Star and, by virtue of that fact, he is able to bring Luke, Obi-Wan, Han and Leia together in one place.
Wilson believes that divestment is a kind of MacGuffin. He said a key feature of the campus divestment movement was that it gathered students and trained them to be effective organizers. “I know for all of them, it was a galvanizing event, probably one of the most important events of their lives,” Wilson said. He noted that several alumni of the divestment movement went on to work in fields related to climate change.
“It’s hard to have a social movement if people don’t feel empowered,” he added. “Seeing that they could be successful — that a small group of people could actually convince a mighty university to divest and be heard — is, I think, really important.”
Forget the line graphs. Tell a great story.
The tactics used by students at Syracuse have proved effective in numerous other fights. Wilson pointed to Jane Kleeb, leader of Bold Nebraska, which has organized against the Keystone XL pipeline. Kleeb, he said, succeeded by talking to locals in terms of their values. Nebraska is a deep-red state. So, rather than appeal to progressive ideals like justice and equality, Kleeb talked about conservative values like freedom, liberty and property. She didn’t, Wilson said, talk about “polar bears in the Arctic or poor people in Bangladesh. She focused on how the pipeline was going to affect people’s water, land and livelihood in Nebraska.”
Kleeb mobilized ranchers, farmers and Native Americans on both ends of the political spectrum, helping to push former President Barack Obama to reject the pipeline in 2015. She transcended the science, Wilson explained. She just told a great story. “Data rarely convinces people of anything,” Wilson said. “Stories convince people to act. You need to lead with stories that resonate with people.”
This is, ultimately, the greatest weakness of emphasizing science. Facts and numbers on their own aren’t stories. They don’t compel, excite or inspire people. The greatest success of Kleeb and the student organizers at Syracuse was that they told a great story about mobilizing to protect their air, water, land and dignity.
Science is essential to understanding and responding to climate change, but on its own, it won’t move people. That’s what stories are for. As author Phillip Pullman once said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”