Opinion

Why John Kelly’s challenge to a climate change denier is one we all need

Why John Kelly’s challenge to a climate change denier is one we all need

In a US committee room a strange thing happened. Frustration reached a point where the polite protocols of witness and committee broke down. Finally, Senator John Kelly summed up the mood of many when he asked Thomas Messie, “Are you being serious?

The committee was hearing evidence on the impact climate change is having on national security. Kelly, a former Secretary of State, was offering his experience and insights on the link between a changing climate and conflict. The exchange was often uncomfortable, but when Messie accused Kelly of being a “Pseudo scientist peddling pseudo science”, frustration came out.

As the planet rushes headlong into an environmental catastrophe, there are still some who resist the zeitgeist. They attempt to debunk the work of scientists and researchers not by tackling the science, but by undermining the messenger. Kelly doesn’t have a degree in climate science from MIT, but he has the weight of decades of research and an almost universal consensus of scientists behind him.

Attack the messenger, not the message.

Polarisation in politics allows those like Messie to make increasingly outlandish claims that resonate with a dedicated fan base. Using social media, the fans echo the claims outwards, adjusting and tweaking the message to win over the undecided. If unchecked, these claims become part of “the narrative”, a shady form of political communication that focuses more on a believable story and less on facts.

Past attempts to thwart action on climate change have typically been low key and with limited effect. A local councillor or a single politician may have been a nuisance, but they had little sway over wider policy. Now a US administration led by a self-confessed climate change denier has enabled a handful of deniers to slow or even reverse years of hard-won victories.

Treading back over old arguments

Kelly’s frustration is understandable. By the early 2000s there was a growing consensus something was wrong and things had to change. Diplomatic efforts on an unprecedented scale led to the Paris Agreement to limit human impact on the climate. Surely the battle to accept climate change was real had been won, and we could move onto the war against our own behaviours?

With the rising power of climate change deniers in politics, the arguments have to be replayed. These aren’t directed at winning over people like Messie. Instead, the emphasis is on ensuring “the people” are reminded why fossil fuels are bad, decarbonising an economy is good and moving to a sustainable way of life is a must.

Sometimes this need to tread over old ground spills out onto the streets. Climate change protests by kids across the globe have been branded as “bunking off school” by some, but play to a greater sense of frustration that not enough is being done.

While the deniers enable damaging policies to be enacted, corporations plough on with measures to reduce their impact. Oil companies are investing in renewable technologies to replace their fossil fuel base. Car manufacturers are committing to electrifying their product range. Investment funds are focusing on eco-credentials as part of their decision making.

Even individual cities and states are bypassing the denier agenda. Over a hundred US towns, cities and states have committed to using 100 per cent renewable energy. While the “Green New Deal” may have failed to pass, parts of it are being supported across the country by local communities.

That this has to be done is frustrating. Communities expected support, not only financially but also with enabling legislation and regulation. This has been taken away from them piece by piece, leaving frustration and bloody-minded determination in their place.

Should we ask climate change deniers the same question?

Perhaps Senator Kelly’s outburst was inevitable. He asked the question of a climate change denier than many individuals, communities and businesses have desperately wanted an answer to for years.

“Are you being serious?”

Image by Linh Do

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Why John Kelly’s challenge to a climate change denier is one we all need

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