Energy Water and Life

December 31, 2012

Many Shades of Green: The Climate Change Debate


Story by Karyn Boenker Contributor 

Environmental politics are about as diverse and complex as the science behind them. Whether you care about the politics or the science, chances are you have not made a career out of protesting. Those who have could be considered outliers, maybe even extremists in the environmental world.

The term ‘environmental extremist’ may conjure up images of the people at EarthFirst! who are willing to destroy property for their cause or those at the Heartland Institute who funded billboards comparing climate science supporters to The Unabomber. For the most part, they make all environmental advocates look bad.

Where do those of us that care about nature, humanity, and conservation fall when it comes to environmental issues, such as climate change? How do we determine who to trust and listen to?’s Karyn Boenker asked a few experts to weigh in.


Annual United Nations conferences on climate change are often frought with contention and disagreement and yet, each year, the world's leaders continue to gather and discuss the problem, despite difficultly finding solutions. Photo by the UNFCCC.

Annual United Nations conferences on climate change are often frought with contention and disagreement and yet, each year, the world’s leaders continue to gather and discuss the problem despite difficultly finding solutions. Photo by the UNFCCC.

Language choices may be one of the most important aspects of communicating science.  Dr. Maxwell Boykoff, policy expert and Professor of Environmental Studies and Geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder, told

“Extreme? There’s probably a better way of putting it.” He suggested that the discussion should shift to “outlier perspectives”.  Outliers are “those voices that are amplified and fall outside convergent agreement among experts,” he added.

The convergent agreement Boykoff is referring to, in the climate change debate, is that which no scientific body of any international or national affiliation has denied including:

  1. Average surface temperatures on Earth are rising faster than natural patterns predict,
  2. Evidence continues to identify human beings as a major cause of dynamic climate changes occurring throughout the world, and
  3. The resulting impacts are likely (>66%) or very likely (>90%), depending on the impact and human actions, to mitigate before disasters occur and adapt once they have passed.

As an expert in climate change policy, media coverage, and discourse Boykoff has earned respect by emphasizing collaboration among disagreeing parties in the climate arena.

An outlier, “could be something like a contrarian stance that says our role in climate change is negligible” or the idea that “we can return to some organic way we existed before industry,” Boykoff continued.

In terms of individuals, he suggested that an outlier might be someone who puts a “personal view in place of or in contrast to measurements” that are scientifically based.

An example of this kind of reaction would be that of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who has called global warming a “hoax” and has been working to prevent legislative action since, at least, 2003. He actively asserts that humans have not caused global climate change.

Still, not all opposition in the climate debate dismiss that the problem is related to humans. Roger Pielke Sr, retired Professor of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State and Researcher at the University of Colorado, has said that humans are involved in climate change, but that regional changes and factors other than the release of CO2 are important to consider.

“Our footprint on the environment is more than just CO2:  It’s nitrogen deposition, it’s the other black carbon, the aerosols, it’s land-use change,” Pielke told MotherJones in 2008.

A lack of complexity appears to be absent in the public debate about climate change. The full story related to the science is exchanged for emotional interpretation of scientific data.  A local focus on climate change related problems may help individuals understand complicated changes that they witness and track in their home towns.


Cover of Bloomberg Businessweek following Hurricane Sandy. How do you feel about this kind of message? Photo from Bloomberg Businessweek

Cover of Bloomberg Businessweek following Hurricane Sandy. How do you feel about this kind of message? Photo from Bloomberg Businessweek

A recent publication from the US National Park Service suggested that one should be aware of “the overuse of emotional appeals” when communicating climate change. Perhaps, this is because emotions are inherently subjective and thus unscientific.

Emotional appeals “are excellent for… creating intellectual ties, if they are overused some people tune them out,” Corbett Nash, Science Communicator for the National Park Service, told

Boykoff explained that media statements directly connecting Hurricane Sandy to climate change can actually cause more people to dismiss climate change if, for example, a Sandy doesn’t occur again for several years.

Boykoff claimed that long term trends are more important than single events, “We need to be careful making these connections because they can come back to bite us.”

Almost nothing can be known for certain, though humans can have good ideas, based on strong evidence that create clearer understanding.

Not all science is good, but members of the American public should understand the concepts that help identify good and bad science. Such critical thinking is also important when considering public protests, campaigns, and other types of political action that try to reign in widespread attention.


You cannot learn much when your engagement with climate change is purely driven by your own opinion or emotional responses. If you are interested in exploring the topic more deeply, and especially if you want to communicate your views, the following suggestions from Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions may be helpful:

James Hanson is a well-known scientist that has taken to the streets with his message about climate change. Photo: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images Europe)

James Hanson, head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is a well-known scientist that has taken to the streets with his message about climate change.
Photo: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images Europe

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Get your audience’s attention.
  3. Translate scientific data into concrete experience.
  4. Beware the overuse of emotional appeals.
  5. Address science and climate uncertainties.
  6. Tap into social identities and affiliations.
  7. Encourage group participation.
  8. Make behavior change easier.

You can find more details related to this list at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions’ website, found here.


Science is complicated and climate change is scary. In the Information Age, everyone is an expert. How does the public figure out who and what to trust?

In September 2012 a survey conducted by the Yale Project and George Mason University revealed that three out of four Americans pointed to climate scientists as the number one trusted source of information on climate change. General scientists came in second and TV weather reporters came in third. contributor Karyn Boenker asked experts about their personal decisions to trust scientific information and act environmentally.


National Park Service Science Communicator Corbett Nash talked to about an excitement he feels when breakthrough findings occur in science.

“Sometimes a study doesn’t go the direction you think it will, which is always quite interesting,” Nash stated.

The scientific method requires that ideas must be falsifiable in order to be tested, so being wrong is a normal part of the job for a scientist. Objectivity is also important.

Paying attention to studies over time helps the public to see this evolving process more clearly, while helping to clarify that scientific problems are solved through trial and error.


Dr. Riley Dunlap, Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University, warned against the influence of political parties and their funders. A good source may be someone with associations on both sides of a debate, who is willing to talk collaboratively about their beliefs.

Dr. Nives Dolsak, a notable policy expert and Professor of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, commented on environmental messages declared in public:

“When it is someone that I respect, with clear credentials for his/her expertise that, to me, is positive. I look for more information on that issue,” Dolsak told


Dr. Richard A. Muller is a highly regarded physicist and converted climate change "skeptic."

Dr. Richard A. Muller is a highly regarded physicist and converted climate change “skeptic.”
Photo: Dan Tuffs/The Guardian

For a long time, Dr. Richard A. Muller, Physics Professor and Research Scientist at the University of California-Berkeley, was a self-proclaimed climate change “skeptic.” Not only did he question the role of human action in the phenomenon, he also questioned the reality of global temperature rise.

As a scientist, rather than a politico, Muller decided to investigate his doubts. Money poured in from all directions. A notable contributor was the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, known to support messages questioning human causes related to climate change.

Muller tested all of the most popular contrarian arguments seriously when performing his study. When the results (available here) came in, they indicated that human carbon dioxide emissions were almost entirely the cause of global warming over the last 250 years. Muller became a changed man and spoke publicly again.

Land temperature measuring stations have been criticized for overemphasizing heating when placed on rooftops or hot areas. Dr. Richard A. Muller addressed this problem in his recent study.

Land temperature stations have been criticized
for bad readings when placed on rooftops or hot areas. Dr. Muller addressed this concern in his study.  Photo: NOAA

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Mueller stated that “these facts don’t prove causality and they should not end skepticism, but they raise the bar: to be considered seriously, an alternative explanation must match [the global land temperature record] at least as well as carbon dioxide does.”

Mueller is still in the process of publishing his results, but has put them online for the world to critique. He is widely respected, has won numerous awards, published 120+ scientific articles, and was recently named #10 on Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers.

Muller is an example of an objective scientist who has been moved to feel differently about climate change because he investigated his ideas. He sets an example for anyone faced with doubt in the face of this issue.


If climate change is a global problem, what can individuals do to help solve it?

“That is the question we should always ask ourselves,” replied Dr. Boykoff. He followed by discussing his work with students and his choice to eat vegetarian for the last 18 years.

“Consider what you are doing, consider alternatives,” Nash told as he talked about remodeling his home with recycled and reused materials.

If global scale problems feel like too much, try looking locally at weather patterns, pollution, and food production. Simply, do the best that you can. After all, we all care about a child out there, so the more we can know about their future the better.

Most of all, open your mind and take the concerns of others seriously, even when you disagree. With no better way of summarizing this sentiment, I give you the words of Mr. Nash: “you wouldn’t use a hammer to tighten a screw,” would you?

Suggestions for further reading:

Photo: (Feature Image): Created by Karyn Boenker, adapted from images by MidfoddMat McDermott, and the UNFCCC.

About the Author

Karyn Boenker
Karyn Boenker, MS, is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. She writes human interest stories while traveling the world and enjoys communicating scientific topics with a touch of humor.