It’s not enough to be right

In the Sun – the UK’s leading tabloid in a shrinking market – Jeremy Clarkson, professional motormouth and patron saint of petrolheads, is having fun.

Clarkson is sceptical about the theory of global warming. Actually, that doesn’t quite catch it. He thinks the idea is “bonkers, idiotic, a complete fairy story.” He blames the usual suspects (politicians, the media, “scientists on the climate change payola”) – plus a few less familiar ones (Margaret Thatcher, who created global warming to allow her to close down Arthur Scargill‘s coal mines).

But Channel 4’s documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, has convinced him he’s right. After all, it had “proper scientists” arguing the case. “Global warming started off as a lie and became an industry,” he writes. “Now it’s a fashion statement and that, ultimately, is what will kill it off.”

Of course, no-one listens to this rubbish (even American climate sceptics hate Clarkson)… apart from all the people who believe every word of it. And it’s them that we should be paying a lot more attention to.

Channel 4’s documentary was ground-breaking not because it was right – but because it filled an emotional need. That’s why people were talking about it the next day. And why, outside a tiny metropolitan and activist elite, it left a deep impression on many people who didn’t even watch it.

Fulminating against this is a really stupid response.

Pillars of the scientific community have been wheeled out to ‘debunk’ the programme. In the New Scientist, for example, Alan Thorpe, chief executive of the National Environment Research Council, is given the soapbox:

Scepticism is one thing; cynicism and conspiracy-theorising are quite another…A loose affiliation of scientists and writers…question[ing] not only the mainstream of global warming science but also the integrity of the researchers involved in it… The impression given is a conspiracy… This is not backed up by any evidence… The climate science community operates at the highest ethical level and sticks to the scientific evidence etc etc etc.

I feel Alan’s pain. Really, I do. Deeply. But this is just preaching to the choir (reassuring them they are good people, as well as excellent singers). It does nothing to tackle the deeper issue of why there’s such enthusiasm for a backlash against mainstream scientific opinion.

If you’re tempted to believe the sceptics don’t matter, then you’re wrong. Remember the fuel protests? The UK at a standstill, basic supplies running short, as a ragtag army of demonstrators left the green lobby cowering in the trenches? Or Blair’s embarrassment when faced by a recent flood of signatures for a petition against road pricing?

Those who care about solutions to the climate change problem (let’s leave aside those, for the moment, those whose peccadillo is to chant ‘we’re doomed, we’re doomed’ in loud voices) have, I think, two choices.

First, the business as usual scenario. We carry on insisting we’re right, redouble the energy invested in debunking those who oppose us; and if necessary, gather all forces for a war-on-those-who-deny-the-truth (WOTWDTT – in time, we’ll come up with a better acronym), even if that war can never be won.

Or second, we stop shouting and start listening. Work out what’s in people’s heads and what drives them to react the way they do. Start mapping what one British government official describes as “the complex geography of people’s imaginations.” And begin learning about how to speak about climate change in a language that will bring people into the fold, rather than drive them further from it.

In the UK, we have plenty of experience to draw on. Throughout the 90s, we suffered wave after wave of disastrous encounters between science and the public (BSE, GMOs, MMR and various other TTAs). Lessons were learned about the futility of working from a simplistic deficit model (people don’t agree with me; they’re wrong; apply more information; expect them to have changed their minds).

There are also plenty of models in politics. Find a modern political party that doesn’t pay huge attention (and spend serious money) on working out how people will respond to its policies. Find a government that applies anything like the same rigour when faced by analogous problems.

And there are useful research resources, often compiled by organisations that have reached the end of their tether on a particular problem.

Take, for example, the systematic knowledge base developed by the Framework Institute to help communications and policy professionals “understand what they are up against in attempting to win public support [in the US] for policies that recognize global interdependence.”

We badly need to develop (or where they exist, aggregate and disseminate) similar resources – not just for the UK, Europe and the USA.

Or I suppose we could join Jeremy Clarkson. Outside. Enjoying the sunshine.