Climate Debate in Word Clouds: The Conflicting Discourse of Climate Change

Like it or not, climate change is now part of the “culture wars.” Like abortion, gun control, and health care, climate change divides conversations along political battle lines of left versus right. But if you listen closely to what is being said, you will find that people are talking past each other, engaged in a debate that has little to do with an evaluation of climate science. Instead, it is a clash about values, beliefs, and worldviews. Opinions are based largely on ideological filters that people use to understand complex issues, influenced strongly by the cultural groups of which they are a part and the opinions of thought-leaders and pundits whom they trust. The arguments are constructed around the frames by which people view the science, not the science itself.

To explore this further, I studied the language used by opposing sides of this debate (what I call the skeptical and convinced positions) as it took place in U.S. newspapers between September 2007 and September 2009. In that period, 795 editorials and letters to the editor were written on the topics of climate change or global warming. Seventy-three percent were convinced, and 20 percent were skeptical, which is in line with numerous polling results (the remaining 7 percent were neutral or unclear). Then I looked at what they were saying and drew a word cloud for each side of the debate, with word size representing each word’s relative use. These word clouds tell an interesting story, one that can help explain the terrain of the debate if you choose to engage it.

First, note that the two sides do not use the same terms to define the debate. Skeptical authors use “global warming” three times as much as “climate change” while convinced authors use the terms equally. This is not an accidental artifact as the two terms take on very different meanings depending on who you are talking to. Recent work published in Public Opinion Quarterly found that Republicans were less likely to endorse that the phenomenon was real when it was referred to as “global warming” rather than “climate change” while Democrats were unaffected by the term. Corroborating research in Climatic Change concluded that global warming is a far more politicizing term than climate change, preferred most by people already concerned about the issue and least by those who don’t believe it is occurring.

So, before you engage in the debate, consider who you are talking to and what effect you want to have. Words have meaning, and the terms you use trigger intended and unintended reactions on those you are trying to reach. You may find yourself losing the debate before it begins.  

The second point to notice in the word clouds is the focus of the issue. For the skeptical editorials, the issue is primarily about the science, or more precisely, the flaws in the scientific process, which they see as corrupt. The sentiment, in the words of a skeptical speaker at the Heartland Conference, that “peer review has turned into pal review” reflects the skeptical belief that only research supporting the reality of climate change will get published. As a result, skeptical authors talk about a “hoax” and “hype” and refer to those who endorse such “hysteria” as “alarmist,” “cultist,” “fundamentalist,” “AGW people” (in reference to Anthropocentric Global Warming), and “socialist” (as a threat to freedom, capitalism and democracy).  

In direct contrast, the convinced editorials de-emphasize the “science” and the nature of the problem to focus instead on solutions, such as “technology,” “nuclear power,” “biofuels,” “clean tech,” “clean coal” and “carbon capture and sequestration.”

And this leads to the topics of the “economy” and “risk,” which both sides discuss, but in far different ways. Skeptical editorials warn that proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions (like cap and trade, or what they call “cap and tax”) will destroy the economy while convinced editorials predict that they will boost it by creating “jobs.”  

These differences point to an important landmark on the terrain of the debate; choose the battlefield of your choice – you can choose to debate the nature of the problem or the nature of the solutions.

Next, note who the two sides are referencing. Both sides like to spend more time attacking a prominent figure on the other side than citing a supporter on their own. Convinced editorials like to criticize George W. Bush and his opposition to climate legislation. With far less politeness, the skeptical editorials attack Al Gore with accusations that he fabricated the problem for ideological and personal gain. In fact, given that nearly 40 percent of all skeptical articles mention the former Vice President, it is apparent that he is the man that the climate skeptical love to hate. As such, he is not likely to win over many converts.    

In the end, why is all this important? The short answer is that lots of small conversations add up to one big conversation. “All politics is local” as Tip O’Neill would say. We need to pull climate change out of the culture wars and keep it from devolving into a “logic schism,” a breakdown in communication where the two sides are talking about completely different issues, only seeking information that confirms their position and disconfirms the other, and developing positions that are relatively exclusive and rigid. The rigidity of either side of the debate closes avenues of examination, such that resolution of the issue becomes intractable.  

To help avoid this outcome, engage in vigorous debate over climate change. But first, consider the rhetorical landscape and the goal of avoiding a logic schism. One side may be talking about scientific data and the other may be talking about freedom, scientific corruption, or distrust of government. And never the twain shall meet. But if you are careful, you may find a common language and a way to communicate towards some kind of neutral ground.

Andrew Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor and Director of the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan, where he holds joint appointments at the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment.  For more on the study discussed in this blog, see: Hoffman, A. (2011) “Talking past each other? Cultural framing of skeptical and convinced logics in the climate change debate.” Organization & Environment, 24 (1): 3-33