The President spoke to the League of Conservation Voters yesterday, and to this friendly audience he continued his recent rhetorical tactic of flat-out mocking climate change deniers. It’s a perfectly valid tactic. Mocking and ridicule get a bad rap in political discourse. There is a place for both as part of an overall pursuasion/mobilization strategy.
"’Folks will tell you climate change is a hoax, or a fad, or a plot, it’s a liberal plot,” he said. “Many who say that actually know better and they’re just embarrassed. They duck the question. They say ‘I’m not a scientist,” which really translates to, ‘I accept man-made climate change is real, but if I say so out loud I’ll be run out of town by a bunch of fringe elements … I’ll just pretend I don’t know, that I can’t read.’”
That sounds about right to me. There’s also the religious motivation, that god is inerrant and man can’t possibly undo what He Hath Wrought (Adam and Eve’s little indiscretion notwithstanding).
Obama also tried the logical analogy tactic. He spoke about the need to defer to expert consensus, as we do in so many other domains:
“I’m not a doctor either, but if a bunch of doctors tell me tobacco can cause lung cancer, then I’ll say, ‘OK.’ It’s not that hard,” he said.
Sounds okay, but here’s where the problem lies I think. We hear often that 97% of climate scientists agree on anthropomorphic climate change, and that it’s absurd to discount such expert consensus. But I’m pretty convinced that when deniers hear "climate scientist", they don’t think "high-status expert". They think "witch doctor". It doesn’t register as "reputable elite" in the same way as do experts in other academic fields, and certainly not like the president’s hypothetical team of pulmonary oncologists above. In short, climate scientists have a major branding problem.
Of course, a core part of the strategy of professional climate deniers has been to undermine the credibility and integrity of these poor scientists. And they’ve been quite successful in this effort, not because they’re such great spinsters, but because people are simply predisposed to think "climate scientist" sounds a little like a bullshit job. And I admit, it does! But why?
Some ideas: You don’t really learn about the career at any stage of schooling (perhaps kids do now?). It’s not readily apparent where you would go to study it and become an expert in it. Almost nobody has personally met a climate scientist. You only ever hear the word as part of the "controversy" over climate change. There’s no cool or badass factor (think astronauts). They have no popular culture presence whatsoever (they need an "ER" for climate science). There’s no climate Einstein, or climate Watson and Crick. It’s not apparent what they do all day. And the problem is not merely that the field is arcane and inaccessible to normal people. I feel like other disciplines that register as completely eggheaded nonetheless enjoy very high status, like quantum physics or nuclear engineering.
But for some reason, compared to other professional elites they basically have nothing going for them in terms of public perception. It’s why the president’s doctor analogy will never pursuade anyone. They have a massive status problem. What to do? For starters, the word "climate" has been thoroughly spoiled by politicization. Maybe officially rebrand as Environmental Scientists. Also, they need a lobby. They need a guild and a PR firm. Mostly they need to pay George Clooney to play a heroic and charming but slightly brooding
climate environmental scientist in his next film. And tell Al Gore to never say another word on the subject.