Unsure about sceptics?

By Scott Losee*, AECOM
Friday, 26 March, 2010


There is a subtle but pervasive challenge in working as a climate change practitioner, namely, dealing with sceptics. When one works day to day in helping to mobilise the immense global effort which is required to claw back human-induced climate change, it is easy to forget not everybody’s ‘on board’.

In this case, what we are really forgetting is that originally, everyone was a sceptic. Not many people immediately accepted the idea that a bit of air pollution here and there could actually trigger the run-away alteration of the planet’s climate.

For a person to make the transition from sceptic to activist, they have to come to terms with a complex scientific argument. They must recognise the problem may be unsolvable and admit our own behaviour is causing this destruction. A big ask indeed.

I have a theory that in any climate change workshop with more than a handful of people there will always be at least one sceptic. When I facilitate workshops, I find it useful to acknowledge this fact with the group because it ‘gives permission’ for people whose minds are in that place to be part of the group.

I introduce the idea of a continuum of levels of scepticism (see table) reinforcing the concept that everybody starts as a sceptic and we must all move through this continuum to position ourselves to participate in ‘the solution’.

At the base level, people are in complete denial. These thoughts are real for many people.

At the level of scepticism, people can draw on the extensive sceptical literature and debate to justify their reluctance to accept human-induced climate change. They may also take the view the cost of reducing emissions is so great, it is rational to delay action until doubt can be resolved.

The most interesting insight from this table is the next level of scepticism, ‘Accept risk’. If one accepts there is a risk - a chance climate change could be occurring at the scale which is widely accepted by world governments - then it is prudent to manage that risk and take action.

The IPCC position is extensively documented and is the basis for government policy around the world. I use this as the accepted reference point for climate change in our work. However, with four years between IPCC reports and a rapidly changing field, it becomes more tenuous as the reports age.

The final level on the table is the idea the IPCC position is too conservative. The IPCC has to adopt consensus science and its reports are more a product of diplomatic negotiation than scientific evaluation. Critics say these factors force the reports to adopt ‘lowest common denominator’ positions. Also, it takes so long to finalise a position that it is out of date before publication.

The IPCC is contentious with sceptics and they often rile at the mere mention of the acronym. However, there is a dangerous trap for practitioners in engaging in point-by-point debate about climate change science. A committed sceptic will always outargue an off-guard activist.

To work successfully with groups of people to consider and address climate change, sceptical views and scepticism in general must be treated respectfully. A climate change practitioner may have strong views about individual exponents of scepticism, but they should not think less of their clients if they have been influenced by sceptics, if only temporarily. Any form of moralising will immediately throw up people’s filters and they may not hear anything more you say.

Decades into the future, it will be very interesting to cast our minds back to the present debates and behaviour of sceptics with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight.

* Scott Losee is AECOM’s Sustainability and Climate Change Director for Australia and New Zealand. He and his colleagues help clients plan to adapt to a changing climate as well as reduce their carbon pollution and embed sustainability thinking in their projects.

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