One little argument can derail debate

There are blockers

The next series of posts is about the blockers—the things that stand in the way between the problem of climate change being addressed with a proper response.

debate helps us find lasting solutions

The first blocker centres around derailing debate.

To give climate responses the best possible chance of generating solutions to climate change, we need to talk freely and openly about how they address the problem.

The ability to contest ideas in a public space adds legitimacy to decision makers and leads to better overall decisions.

Climate change is a wicked problem. It has no single, easily defined problem or solution, but has the pressure of time constraints. This makes finding solutions particularly hard. Debate allows us weigh up different ideas and pursue the ones that are environmentally effective, economically efficient, equitable and in the public interest.

One headline can derail debate

With any complex problem, people can fall to one side or another of the debate based on their beliefs and the information they consume.

Source: DailyMail

Sometimes memes, videos or headlines (like the one above) are intentionally designed to mislead the public and shape debate. Sometimes they are just clickbait, with the writer profiting from the number of clicks received. Sometimes it’s something in between.

But if they are misleading…

Why does the misleading information cut through?

The first job of misleading information is to catch our attention with a headline, meme, video or other form of communication. These work because they are novel and grab our attention.

Lingering novelty
Another effect of the novelty factor is that the information will remain in our heads even after they’ve been corrected. Not only can belief in misinformation lead to poor decision-making, it also exerts a lingering influence. Just being exposed to a misleading headline can increase later belief in that headline—meaning our social media feed has the potential to change the way we see the world and make political choices.

Lazy thinking
Humans are lazy thinkers. It’s not entirely our fault—we are guided by cognitive shortcuts known as heuristics. These time-savers help us make quick decisions when required, but can let us known when it comes to taking on information. A 2019 study found that people were more susceptible to misleading news due to lazy thinking than partisan bias.

In the graphic below, a headline by itself conveys one message, but once considered alongside detail and context, it provides new meaning.

Information is easy and everywhere
Another factor that cannot be overlooked is that it has never been easier to get eyeballs on a message, nor to get people to help spread it. In recent years, fake news stories have proliferated via social media, in part because they are so easily and quickly shared online.

One important factor remains — the role of values.

The V Word

While we think of ourselves as rational, we humans are guided by emotion and values.

Humans like to think of themselves as rational creatures, but much of the time we are guided by emotional and irrational thinking.

We tend to follow values and things that feel familiar and resonate with us—values like care, fairness, liberty and loyalty.

When considering a climate response, these values can be represented by four different value boxes— economy, environment, equity and public interest.

While each is important, one is generally considered more valuable than others when trade offs are required due to the different values each of us hold.

So why do we have different values…

One concept is Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph’s Moral Foundations Theory, which suggests that differences in people’s moral concerns can be viewed across six moral foundations—care, fairness, liberty, authority, sanctity and loyalty.

For this reason each of us will be more sensitive to different moral values and see complex issues differently.

Based on work by

So we can see that debate is good, and that there is a tendency to gravitate towards misleading statements that can derail debate—all of which is mostly based on our values.

So how can we fix it?

Slow down
A first step is for people to slow down and think about why they are engaging with certain information. Those who thoughtfully seek accurate information are more likely to avoid misinformation compared with those who find evidence confirming their pre-existing beliefs.

Another approach is education—both with school-age students, but adults as well. The internet is new and people can be taught how to interact with it, like how to reverse image searching or looking for a material’s source. Psychological research also backs safeguarding people against fake news before they’re exposed—something known as prebunking, which is much more successful than debunking incorrect information after it has spread.

Some advocates including Dr Claire Wardle suggest shame could be used, where sharing misinformation becomes as shameful as drink driving.

The five climate denials

There are an endless number of cognitive biases and other communication techniques that prevent climate responses.

However, five stand out as common debate derailers:

The scientific doubt
Today almost all governments, businesses and institutions accept that the globe is warming and that the primary cause is human activity. But occasionally a headline, a screenshot can derail debate.

The imperfect
The imperfect involves a person or an organisation that both advocates for climate solutions, but acts in a way that seems contradictory.

While sometimes those in positions of authority advocating for environmental causes can act against those values, the criticism is often directed elsewhere—the climate negotiator that flies to an international conference, the Minister that drives a petrol vehicle, and so on.

Yes, we should all do our best to reduce our own personal emissions footprints, but it’s not reasonable to expect advocates to be puritans.

If a government pursues an emission reductions agenda that looks after those in high-emitting industries, aren’t they just ensuring no one’s left behind? And are those who advocate for a climate response, but fly, eat meat and have children doing anything worse than the millions of others who do the same and don’t receive criticism?

The whatabout
The whatabout takes several forms. Often it is to do with pointing the finger at others. In this case it concerns a situation where Person A advocates for a climate response and Person B highlights other priorities—often the economy or national security. One of the difficulties with this line of questioning is that climate, the economy and national security (amongst other themes like health) are interlinked challenges. Even so, climate change as an issue by itself is often cited as a threat that poses high risk, even when compared to others.

The cost
The cost is perhaps one of the most common debate derailers, and one frequently used in the media. While the cost of a climate response is very important, cost is often reported in a way that discounts the benefits, reflects one type of modelling or displays a cumulative cost reflecting several years.

NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) often occurs when people are supportive of a climate response, but not when it affects their lives. One common example is when new infrastructure (such as bicycle lanes or wind turbines) is constructed in a certain place. It can even occur when the local supermarket begins charging for plastic bag use.

The siting of new infrastructure is a very real issue and requires consultation with communities, but too often debate can be derailed by a headline promoting fear over a project in a particular location.

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