Harry Geels: The eight shades of gray of the climate debate

Harry Geels: The eight shades of gray of the climate debate

Climate Change
Harry Geels

By Harry Geels

There was a lot of fuss and media attention last weekend about the Extinction Rebellion demonstration on the A12 highway. The big problem is that the climate debate is being hijacked by four extreme camps, two of which even have ulterior motives that are separate from the climate discussion. Furthermore, many one-sided arguments are used on both sides.

The protest march on the A12 highway by Extinction Rebellion is causing a stir. The discussions mainly focus on two issues. On the one hand, about the right to demonstrate, or even better, to be an activist, and on the other hand, about the struggle between people who are alarmed about the climate and those who deny climate change. If we can believe the (social) media, there are mainly two opposing camps. But research shows that there are many more opinions. The discussion is further clouded by two camps with ulterior motives that are in principle separate from the climate discussion.

It is time for nuance and some more order in the chaotic discussions. There are four questions to be answered. 1: Why is it that only two (extreme) camps dominate the discussion? (actually four, but more about that when answering the next question) 2: What does the landscape of opinions actually look like? 3: How can quality media report better on the climate? and 4: How good are the arguments of the extreme camps actually? Finally, there are a number of things that we must be aware of when it comes to the climate transition.

1) Too much attention to the extreme camps: the binary bias

When it comes to forming opinions, humans have an ingrained problem: the binary bias’, or 'binary thinking', the tendency to seek clarity by simplifying a complex continuum of information into two extreme categories. Say white or black, you are for or against vaccination, the climate transition, the EU or the digital euro. For example, you cannot be (positively) critical about the climate transition, vaccinations, EU or digital euro. You have to show your colors - often referring to the 'seriousness' of the situation. We now see this very clearly in the climate debate.

The media also contribute to binary thinking. It is much more interesting to report on the extremes in the debate with 'clickbaits' and 'sound bites'. Not infrequently, journalists also reveal their opinion or the opinion of the medium they work for, which actually encourages polarization - which we all seem to be fed up with. And 'before you know it, you will lose each other', as SIRE's campaign put it, to combat polarization.

2) Better stylization of the climate views landscape

According to research by the Center for Climate Change Communication, there are six opinion groups among Americans when it comes to climate: from the 10% who are 'Dismissive' (climate change deniers) to the 31% who are 'Alarmed' (the climate alarmists).

Professor and science author Adam Grant writes in his 'must-read' Think Again about this study, which concluded that more than 90% of media reports about climate focus on these two 'extreme' groups. If we divide this reporting fifty-fifty, 10% of Americans (the deniers) get 45% of the reporting.

I dare say that there are two more extreme camps, which unfortunately have not been interviewed. Camps that abuse the climate debate for other purposes. On the left side of Figure 1 we see a group also called the 'fossil lobbyists'. They not only deny the climate problems, they, with the resources of oil companies, mislead the discussion. On the other side are the 'covert communists'. The climate transition would only be possible if we implement a major redistribution and practice 'degrowth'. We also speak of ecosocialism or communism.

Figure 1

12092023-Harry Geels-Figuur 1

Source: Think Again (edited)

3) Better journalism required

Think Again contains a summary of a number of interesting experiments on how journalists (and politicians and scientists too, for that matter) can better report on complex issues such as climate and immigration. By identifying the shades of gray and ifs and buts in the discussion, and expressing the uncertainty about the climate transition, people will take them more seriously. In fact, most people are willing to pay more attention to nuanced opinions, which improves the overall discussion and reduces polarization.

4) Still too much one-sided argumentation (from both sides)

There is a lot of conflicting research about the climate (and the possibilities of achieving or not achieving the goal of 'net zero' in 2050). Moreover, there are still many uncertain variables. Does everyone take all arguments into account? And shouldn't we – in a democracy at least – also be open to the arguments of the groups in the middle, which we hardly hear? Furthermore, a global blueprint, yet to be carefully drawn up, of how to achieve an objective (for example 'net zero') would promote a good substantive discussion.

In conclusion

This is a call for more reality and solidarity. We must guard against spurious or weak arguments. There is a lot to be said in favor of a climate transition, but it can also happen too quickly, with all the social problems that entails. Cologne and Aachen were not built in one day either. In the climate discussion, be aware that in addition to possible one-sided arguments, there are also commercial interests of companies that, on the one hand, earn a lot of money in the current status quo, but on the other hand, also make a lot of money from the transition.

Consultants and data providers, for example, benefit from it and it cannot be ruled out that they, like the fossil lobbyists, also engage in public influence. The message is therefore: remain critical, or as Adam Grant would say: Think Again. In the way of arguing, do not become a 'preacher, prosecutor or politician'. Always think like a scientist. 'Last but not least': the need for a rapid climate transition has been hijacked by the left-wing political parties. Right-wing parties have been sleeping here. The climate transition can very well also be done by the right.

Dit artikel bevat een persoonlijke opinie van Harry Geels