Reverse Engineering Climate Arguments

Today, in Washington D.C. Bill McKibben, environmental author and activist, is leading a group of protesters onto the White House lawn to be arrested. They are specifically protesting the Keystone XL pipeline and, to hear McKibben on NPR, they are enthusiastic about their impending arrests.

While the protests will no doubt be peaceful, the persuasive tack seems, to me, misguided. If what climate change activists want is to convince climate skeptics, who they see as anti-scientific and ant-intellectual, then they would be well advised to abandon their appeals to science, and certainly demonstrations like rallies and protests, for greater variety and more conservative rhetoric.

Conservatives are not convinced by appeals to science and peaceful protests. Progressives can often be found pointing this out en masse. This works well for pointing out the differences between left and right, but not for changing minds. Perhaps it is because conservatives do not “own” methods like protest and perhaps they have honest concerns about scientific ideological bias. Doesn’t matter. It is easier to provide targeted evidence than to convince an opponent on what kind of evidence he should accept. Conservatives are more likely to appeal to moral and philosophical reasoning (more intuitive, less empirical), free market indication (they believe in the price system of information), and a raft of other ideological soft spots.

In the political realm brinksmanship is understandable and expected. There is a political purpose to making the other side look foolish. But on both a personal and ideological level it makes little sense to isolate dissenters. It would seem to do little to advance the idea of climate change and only problematize and slow its mainstream acceptance.

Progressives would be well advised to (1) try a greater variety of strategies and (2) try to target the ones that appeal to those who disagree with you. If scientific evidence isn’t the kind that will convince your opponents what will? Again, this strategy does not allow you to signal your allegiance to science and intellectualism, or allow you associate yourself with elites you admire. Quite the opposite. I am suggesting you have the discussion in conservative terms, using conservative ideas, and conservative rhetorical strategies.

Conservatives believe in nationalism, appeal to that with an argument that we will be left behind economically if we don’t develop green technology. You will get some push back, engage it. Conservatives listen to to moral arguments. Conservatives believe that markets provide solutions. This seems to me to be the best area for persuasion since conservatives have the same sort of unblinking faith in markets that progressives have in science. Predictions markets like this one, which climate skeptics set up themselves and then lost, provide the kind of evidence that convinces the right and adds believers to the fold…

…if that is what you’re after.


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