While the New Year brings with it a sense of optimism, for those of us in the climate change business it means another year competing against any schnook with money and a billboard to address the American people (see the Heartland Institute).

When it comes to the climate debate, those who invoke socialism and scientific conspiracy (see Fox News) have demonstrated the highest degree of effectiveness. At the very least, they have succeeded in clouding people’s common sense on the climate issue. At most, they’ve upped the ante on a game of chicken that pits the long-term best interests of humanity against an unforgiving Mother Nature.

So this year, when someone says that the science is inconclusive about whether humans are causing climate change, or that carbon dioxide is a “harmless gas” (see Rep. Michelle Bachmann), take the following five steps before nodding in agreement and moving along with your day:

1. Consider the source:  If someone decries climate change as a hoax, they tend to base their information on distorted facts cherry-picked from the press rather than their own experience, say, as a trained scientist who has spent their career analyzing climate data.  As Dr. Cameron Wake, climate researcher at the University of New Hampshire states, “because of the complex nature of climate change, it is much easier to sell the lie than it is to sell the truth.”

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Sources commonly cited by skeptics in support of their stance include: “Climategate” – a series of emails between scientists taken woefully out of context (several independent investigations have since been conducted — all have absolved those involved of any scientific misconduct); the Oregon Petition — a collection of 30,000 signatories claiming that there is no scientific evidence to support human induced climate change (apparently all you need is a degree in basic science to sign on); and anything supported by the Koch brothers, Charles and David, who have spent billions on climate denial to protect their investment in the oil industry.

For more on this, see Media Matters November 2012 piece: Meet the Climate Denial Machine.

2. Know your stuff:  It’s true; climate science doesn’t exactly lend itself to a quick study on the bus ride to work, but there are basic components of climate change even the least scientifically inclined person should have in their back pocket:

  • The Greenhouse Effect – the primary reason that temperatures on earth remain livable, the greenhouse effect is responsible for trapping heat from the sun in a way that keeps conditions comfortable for all living things.  This natural phenomenon has been thrown wildly out of balance by the steady output of greenhouse gas emissions to support our society (for example: electricity from coal-fired power plants to heat and cool our homes, and gasoline to power our cars).   For an interactive crash course on the greenhouse effect, visit National Geographic.
  • Natural versus Human-Caused Climate Change – It is 100 percent true that the earth’s climate shifts naturally between warming and cooling periods (think Ice Age).   However, when looking at climate patterns over several thousand years, it has been the drastic rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) since the industrial revolution 300 years ago that is now causing man to play a role in this process.  For a slightly more involved understanding of the science at play here visit the OSS Foundation website on the natural cycle of global warming.

3. Look around you: Climate change is cool because everyone is talking about it. Well, not everyone. In fact, few people beyond Bill McKibben seem to be talking about it with any degree of regularity. The fact is, though, a vast majority of Fortune 500 companies (oil and gas companies included) admit that society is contributing to global warming and agree that the best course of action is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  What follows is a mere smattering of companies that publicly address human-induced climate change on their website (caveat – even though these companies admit the importance of reducing emissions, it is not in any way meant to indicate they are faultless champions for the environment):  Shell Oil; ExxonMobil; Hess; ConocoPhillipsThe Clorox Company; Bank of America; PepsiCo; Citi; IBM; AstraZeneca; Unilever; LEGO; and Nike.

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4. Don’t let politics and religion cloud the issue: As the adage goes, three subjects never to broach at the dinner table are money, religion and politics.   Not so discreetly, climate change is woven into all three, only adding to the taboo nature of the problem.

According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 16 percent of conservative republicans think that global warming is caused by human activity. Two things that make this moderately intuitive:  1) the face of climate change in the U.S. since 2006 has been a very polarizing Al Gore; and 2) at the very foundation of religion is the belief that God, not man, controls the fate of humanity and the planet we inhabit.   In many ways, this line of reasoning automatically hamstrings the level of accountability we have as a species to manage our destiny.

Exacerbating these two issues is the fact that conservatives tend to favor limited government and the ability of the free market to determine what is best for society — a notion not altogether unsound, save that the free market doesn’t account for environmental costs unless it is regulated to do so.

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle (as well as extremely powerful oil, coal and gas lobbies) realize that curbing greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change won’t come from voluntary carbon reductions, but rather from a government-imposed carbon tax.  To even hint at a tax in Congress, as was seen with the fiscal cliff negotiations, is the equivalent of jumping off the political career cliff, but that shouldn’t preclude us from understanding that a carbon tax is a viable solution.

5. Embrace common sense: If it looks like caca and smells like caca, it probably is caca. There is little doubt that no matter how perfect the science is, or how many celebrities work to advance the issue, or how many extreme weather events occur, there will always be a passionate contingent of climate skeptics ready to cast doubt and muddy the “debate” on climate. When confronted by these folks, it is important to take this and the preceding four steps as a guide to disarming (not literally!) and educating people who remain skeptical about the causes of climate change.

A word to the wise: Whatever you do, don’t go running around, arms flailing, screaming “Sound the alarms!  Climate change is going to kill us all!” — people tend to respond negatively to this type of behavior.

As social issues go, climate change is about as sexy as a lesson in physics.  We have no fancy pink ribbons and there are no cuddly puppies to hand out as a reward for paying the problem any mind.   Evidence suggests, though, that the tides are changing in the forum of public opinion, and that people are recognizing that it will take a village to deal with the climate issue.

A recent survey from Yale found that one in three consumers rewarded companies taking steps to cut global warming by buying their products. On the flip side, the latest results from Climate Counts ratings indicate that 66 percent of companies scored have a climate and energy strategy in place, up from 25 percent in 2007.

Of course there will always be schnooks to contend with when it comes to communicating a complex issue like climate change. One hopes that the competition when next New Year rolls around will just be slightly less intense, and that we’ll have moved the needle slightly closer to the solutions piece of the puzzle.

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