Demonization: The Death of Civil Discourse

Presidential campaigns and daily coverage of candidates are a stark reminder that politics has become a blood sport where demonization is the coin of the realm. Candidates and their campaigns spend too little time discussing their views on issues and programs and too much time following the principle of “go negative early”. Civil discourse is the victim.

It is the same with climate change. Instead of serious discussion about the reasons for different perspectives, there is an excess of labeling and demonization—denier, skeptic, criminal, and the like. The tactics used in politics and the climate debate look like they are drawn from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. These include maintaining constant pressure on your opponent, bait your opponent into reacting, the end justifies the means, and the most employed, pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

Even though so-called climate skeptics are constantly demonized, the tactics used by the climate establishment have not persuaded the electorate. Poll after poll shows that environmental issues, including climate are at the bottom of citizens’ priorities. That may reflect their personal assessment of the environment that they actually experience and tuning out the constant bombardment of messages of impending catastrophe. After a while, when predictions of doom prove false, people just tune out.

Instead of predictions of doom, those who actually believe that humans are having an adverse affect on our climate system should adopt the prescription of Fr. John Jenkins, President of Notre Dame, who prescribes persuasion over hectoring and insulting. He says, “If I am trying to persuade …I …have to understand their position, which means I have to listen … I have to show respect. … I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas.”

Pursuing this route begins with acknowledging that there are many benefits from CO2. It makes the earth greener, it helps crops grow more efficiently, and it helps plant life use water more efficiently. Once the benefits have been established in dialogue, advocates for reducing CO2 need to explain how a nutrient can be a pollutant especially when its warming effect is not linear but decreases as atmospheric concentrations increase. This kind of dialogue would lead to a more complete understanding about CO2 and open a discussion of the great uncertainty in our knowledge about the climate system.

Beyond clarity on CO2, it is necessary to be clear on science. There is a big difference between a scientist using his credentials to speak on a topic and demonstrating a proposition through the scientific process, which involves experimentation, establishing hypotheses that can be confirmed or rejected through testing, and using empirical data. Reliance on models that cannot adequately represent the climate system because of its complexity is not science. As a former, EPA scientist said in a June 2014 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “my work for the EPA wasn’t that of a scientist, …It was more like that of a lawyer. My job, as a modeler, was to build the best case for my client’s position.” This is not how public policy should be set, it is not how the scientific process works, and it is not how complex issues involving the climate system should be resolved.

Climate change and policies to address it, whatever the cause or causes, are too important to the economy and our environment to be determined by political tactics and demonization. Honest dialogue based on on Fr. Jenkins wise counsel is the best route to resolution.


This article appeared on the FuelFix website at

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