Jim McClellan: Don’t chill debate over climate change

Facebook is a minefield for me these days. Most of the time I just scroll along peaceably through updates from family and friends and others whom I really don’t know but I’m afraid to delete because they might be people I should know but forgot. Every now and then, though, BAM! I read something that blows my blood pressure through the roof.

The latest issue that set me off was a petition encouraging the nation’s top newspapers to follow the Los Angeles Times’ lead and reject letters claiming humans don’t cause climate change.

At first I thought I misread the petition. I mean, what serious journalist would announce openly that he’s going to squelch public commentary because he disagrees with it?

As it turns out, that journalist is Paul Thornton, who holds the fun title of editor of letters to the editor for the Times. Thornton has decided that anthropogenic climate change may no longer be challenged on the page where he reigns. He has declared it to be true, thus any disagreement is simply “factual inaccuracy” that would violate the sanctity of his Letters section.

While you digest that nugget, let me explain that I do believe humans have had an impact on the climate. I hardly see how we could avoid it. Yet, even to me, Thornton’s policy seems arrogant and disingenuous.

Thornton hangs his hat on the findings of the International Panel for Climate Change. This distinguished group proclaims they are “95 percent certain” that human activity is warming the planet. That’s compelling, but according to a March poll by Pew Research, only about 42 percent of Americans share the panel’s view.

The vast difference between those numbers suggests there’s a powerful need for more discussion and debate. That’s why the Times policy and the associated petition drive are such wrongheaded moves. Isn’t the goal to help folks understand the issue and build a consensus about how to handle it? If so, this is a giant leap in the wrong direction.

As a PR guy for many years, I’ve dealt with a skeptical and angry public more times than I want to remember. I learned, sometimes painfully, that they don’t shut up and go away just because you trot out an expert. And if you want support, you’re well advised not to brush off their concerns.

Instead, you answer their questions, no matter how dumb or how many times they’ve been asked before. You politely defend your position with facts, and when those facts are challenged, you provide sources and methods. And you accept that you’ll never convince your most vocal opponents, but you may sway others in the audience.

It’s draining and time-consuming, but it’s also an important part of the democratic process.

The same Pew Research survey found that only 33 percent of Americans consider climate change to be a very serious issue. That’s a decline of 12 percentage points since 2007. With disinterest growing, the last thing Thornton should do is stifle people who actually offer opinions, no matter how misguided he thinks they are. Far better to let people hear the competing views and decide which is more credible.

Facebook aside, sometimes the public is smarter than we think.

Guest Author


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