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Talking with Climate Skeptics: How to Engage Separators, Bargainers, and Harmonizers (Part 1) | Righting America

by Emma Frances Bloomfield

Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health. Her new book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, is available now through Routledge’s series on Advances in Climate Change Research.

Picture of the book cover for "Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics" by Emma Frances Bloomfield.
Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment

In our ongoing conversations and controversies about the environment and climate change, it becomes ever more pressing to uncover and explore obstacles to progress and policy enactment. In my forthcoming book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, I specifically address the sometimes productive and sometimes detrimental role that religion and Christianity play in public attitudes on the environment. While some may view religion as an impediment to climate change beliefs, I wish to tease out these relationships in order to disrupt monolithic assumptions about both climate skeptics and religious adherents. The primary goal of the book is to create strategies for engagement – to start and continue conversations – by better understanding various audiences and stakeholders in controversies over climate change.

In my theoretical justification for the project, I propose that environmental communicators should be audience-focused. Drawing primarily from work by Kenneth Burke on identification, Richard Johannesen on dialogue, and Krista Ratcliffe on rhetorical listening, I argue that our environmental conversations must focus on engagement and understanding, instead of coercion and persuasion. A key contribution of the book is my focus on seeking to understand skeptics instead of dismissing them out of hand. This approach opens up opportunities for genuine exchange and trust-building, in order to uncover underlying motivations and perspectives. I explore the potential harms of entering conversations with pre-conceived biases (on the part of both environmental communicators and climate skeptics), in the process making use of rhetorical theories that may help us achieve commonality.

In the book, I propose a typology for categorizing how Christians make sense of their relationship to the environment and their attitudes toward climate change. Instead of categorizing people based on the strength of their denial, my typology of separators, bargainers, and harmonizers is based on public discourse about climate change and my interviews and interactions with climate skeptics and members of the Creation Care community (Christians who support environmental advocacy based on their faith). The typology emerged from the worldviews, frameworks, and guiding metaphors that were shared amongst them. The typology is not meant to be exhaustive or exclusive but a new conceptualization of skepticism to tease out the interrelationships of Christianity and climate change.

The first category in the typology is the “separator.” Separators see a distinct, oppositional relationship between their interpretation and performance of their faith, and mainstream conclusions from climate science. Separators operate from within a “war” framework, which drives their discourse to be aggressive and highly polarized. For example, separators may accuse climate scientists of corrupting society’s morality or seeking to destroy religion’s influence. To outline the rhetorical features of the separators, I analyzed the public discourse of the Cornwall Alliance. The Cornwall Alliance draws a clear divide between their interpretation of Christianity and environmentalism, viewing them as incompatible. For example, Cornwall Alliance President Calvin Beisner argued that environmentalism is a “radical religion” and that Christians “must never conflate Biblical earth stewardship with environmentalism. The two are mutually exposed from – pardon the pun – the ground up.”

The second category in the typology is the “bargainer.” Bargainers negotiate their understanding of mainstream climate science with competing authorities, mainly religious and economic ones. Unlike the separators, bargainers are more likely to bring up scientific data and research as valid decision-making resources. However, they oftentimes undergo a bargaining process where that information is interpreted differently in order to refute mainstream interpretations. For example, bargainers may look at the statistic that 97% of scientists ascribe to anthropogenic climate change and interpret this to mean that there are still credible experts and scientists that are unconvinced. In substituting other authorities for scientific ones, bargainers operate under the framework of a revolution, where current understandings will be disrupted and replaced by further research. For example, the Acton Institute has argued that “an environmental ethic … rests firmly upon the foundation of both sound reasoning and divine revelation,” thereby framing reasoning and science as relying on Christian ideals.

The third category in the typology is the “harmonizer.” Harmonizers are not climate skeptics but are Christians who actively incorporate environmental protection into the performance of their faith. They are included in the typology to show the variety of ways, both negatively and productively, that religion influences environmental attitudes. Harmonizers are likely to see themselves as personally implicated in making environmental decisions, and they believe that Christians should be stewards of the environment. While there is little need to engage in conversations about the scientific reality of climate change with harmonizers, it is important to engage them on practical ways to enact their religious identity and make meaningful environmental changes. The Evangelical Environmental Network exemplifies the harmonizers’ ecological attitudes by noting the connectedness of all life. The organization’s goals include creating “renewed harmony and justice between people” and “between people and the rest of the created world.”

It is my hope that by book will appeal to different audiences at the intersection of the environment, communication, dispute resolution, collaboration, climate science, and faith. By pairing communication and rhetorical theories with practical solutions, the book aims to not only produce knowledge but contribute to progress in environmental conversations. Future projects should build on these ideas by further testing and refining the typology, exploring how other ideological identities intersect with the environment, and proposing additional strategies for engaging in environmental conversations.