Of Climatology: Climate Communicating In A Post-Truth America

We know that climate change is happening; we know that humans are causing it, and we know that we must find solutions quickly. These indisputable facts have somehow become disputable in a post-truth America as climate skepticism rises faster than the sea level that threatens us. Unfounded “opinions” have become normative, and statements that lack truth are expounded freely – leaving many to wonder how climate communications will remain effective.

What we mean by truth is not Truth with a capital ‘T,’ nor is it a dismissal of postmodern thought in our examination of facts that support our claims. In many cases, our respective faith traditions depend on the former, so, rest assured, no one is asking anyone to position absolutism vs. relativism.

Over the last century, however, America has become infatuated with facts, particularly the numerical kind. Our love affair is so passionate that we have created an entire industry hinged on dispelling the falsehoods that pervade us both in their manufacture and the rebuttals charged to cast doubt over them. Fact checking has become a familiar pastime for Americans as we wait for the post-debate scorecard to be read, telling us how accurate and honest each candidate or pundit has been. But it goes much deeper than that.

Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies.

The New York Times contends that “Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.” Sacralizing secular information bears its own set of problems, but you get the point.

On any given Sunday, we may find facts to support any number of claims but what we lose in our quest for opinion is a grasp of consensus. The now familiar refrain explaining how “most scientists agree that climate change is real and human-caused” has, in Derridean prediction, become powerless. This is not to imply that it is false – on the contrary, it is very true. It simply wields little impact in a post-truth era and its repetition, while critical, weakens with every use. But we need facts to make our case. Without them, our insistence on solutions falls flat.

Unlike other divisive issues, climate denial is more reliant on doubt than it is a battle of truth(s). Similar to the tobacco debate of the 1990s, “the bill of [climate change] has come due. Yet, we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it,” suggests Naomi Oreskes, author of Merchants of Doubt.

The move for faith leaders is less about exposing Americans to more facts, truths or even dispelling doubt. It is, and arguably always has been about re-centering our ethos on the values that define us.

In this sense, the most effective climate communicators stay away from science, statistics, or graphs that demonstrate the impacts of climate change and go straight to values instead. According to ecoAmerica's, Let’s Talk Climate Report, successful climate messaging:

  • Presents climate as a moral responsibility to God, our children, our neighbors, future generations, the “least of these,” and all of creation.
  • Uses familiar and resonant faith language and metaphors, such as the “Golden Rule.”
  • Embraces the good intentions and aspirations of people of faith. Limits blame and fear.
  • Talks about creation care first, then talks about climate change.
  • Expresses stability and order with the use of “balance,” which is highly valued among faith audiences.
  • Employs a story arc that encompasses a challenge, an action, and a resolution – similar to story arcs found in religious teachings.
  • Balances belief in God’s will with the American value of choice.
  • Lists personal rewards that are relevant to faith audiences: a stronger faith, a sense of belonging, the protection of family, and bonding with family.

DeSmogBlog similarly suggests that communicators 1) ditch the science 2) think hyperlocal and 3) make their message urgent and personal. Demonstrate to your congregation that climate change is having an immediate impact on their lives and if you must, use local impacts as examples. If the area you are in has not been affected by climate change (unlikely but possible), get as close as possible. Use domestic impacts such as Louisiana’s flooding or the rising sea level that currently consumes a football field of Gulf Coast every hour.

It’s important to remember that climate denial and to some extent skepticism, is not grounded on any real scientific consensus. These sentiments are often a product of group think and a fear of responsibility, so what makes you think that accurate statistics will effectively counter them? As a faith leader, you hold a powerful position to demonstrate how an American’s affiliation with a faith tradition bears with it a responsibility to care for God’s creation – and that sacred responsibility supersedes all other associations.

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. 

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