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Environment: Coastal educator has ways to deal with climate change

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Climate change has become one of the topics unsuitable for dinner conversation, Michelle LaRocco, Coastal Training Program coordinator for the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuary Research Reserve told members of the Winyah Chapter of Sierra Club this week.

LaRocco’s statements that climate change is real and it’s caused by human activity was accepted as fact by members of her audience. In public debate, there has been as much push-back about the cause and effect of climate change as there was against evolution, vaccine safety and cigarettes causing cancer, she said.

“People say they are just being skeptical,” LaRocco said. “The scientific process is built on skepticism, questioning, figuring out, exploring. What I see from social science research is the climate change conversation has shifted to denialism rather than skepticism. Using the skeptical approach, you look at a problem, consider the evidence and come to a conclusion. A denialist knows what you want to decide and you either only look for evidence that supports your decision or you disregard evidence opposed to your decision. Confirming your pre-conceived notions is not a scientific way to go about discovery.”

She said 97 percent of climate experts agree that warming of the atmosphere is caused by humans burning fossil fuels. “Most people say it’s 35 to 50 percent,” LaRocco said. “Why is that?”

Chemists in 1850 discovered that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs heat. That’s not a question up for debate, LaRocco said. It’s physics.

Climate change deniers use the same arguments tobacco companies used: The science is still not clear; more research is needed. Naomi Oreskes, a professor at Harvard University, said climate change is a political debate being made to look like a scientific debate.

“The lesson from tobacco is that we know the tactics used,” LaRocco said. “Hopefully, we can spot the tactics used. I’m not saying there’s no conversation to be had. If we argue about the science, we never get to real change. Who are the people who don’t want to get to real change? The people who have monetary benefits tied up in keeping things the way they are.”

She said climate change is politically sensitive. Three times more Democrats say they believe in human-caused climate change than Republicans. “There are advocates of taking action on climate change on all sides,” LaRocco said. “Why does the gap exist? There is a concept called motivated disbelief.”

A study asked two groups of conservative voters about climate change. Free-market solutions based on innovation were proposed to one group and stronger regulation of carbon dioxide proposed to the other. “When given a solution they liked, the free market, the Republicans agreed that climate change was a problem,” LaRocco said. “When given a solution they didn’t like, they said there is no problem. That’s how our brains work to protect our ideology.”

A study of Australians found that people who agreed that climate change was caused by humans estimated that 40 percent of the population shared their views. When asked how many dismissed climate change they estimated 22 percent. The study participants underestimated the number of people who agreed with them and overestimated the number who disagreed.

“It comes down to how we talk about the issue,” LaRocco said. Deniers have an assortment of tactics:

The fake expert. A former president of the National Academy of Sciences in the 1950s denies climate change exists, she said. He was a nuclear scientist who never studied climate change. “Maybe we should question why you are talking about this,” she said.

Impossible expectations. This was strong in the tobacco cases: Maybe cigarettes cause cancer. Tobacco companies said they didn’t know the exact way cigarettes cause cancer so they couldn’t do anything. “That’s raising the bar for an opponent higher than you would for yourself,” LaRocco said. “Absolute certainty is impossible.”

Logical fallacies. Take preconceived notions and use only evidence that lines up with them.

Cherry picking. Finding a favorable result and ignoring the broader context. Denialists, she said, like to point to 1998 as the year climate change stopped because it was an extraordinarily hot year that hasn’t been exceeded in 17 years.

Conspiracy theories. The No. 1 word associated with climate science is hoax, LaRocco said, and the scientific community is out to hide the information. “A cold winter in Asia,” she said, “doesn’t mean that climate change is a hoax.”

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