Changing the Rhetoric in the Climate Change Debate

By Philip Malley on January 25, 2018

Changing the Rhetoric in the Climate Change Debate

The years 2014, 2015, and 2016 are the hottest years on record, and this decade is set to be the warmest in recent history. Humans have contributed to climate change by burning fossil fuels like coal and oil, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the warming of the planet. Despite the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists and published research, politicians, especially conservatives, remain skeptical, denying that it either poses a threat or even occurs at all. This is because many climate change denial talking points are partially true. However, these notions lack the proper context as to what it means in the realm of human history.

For example, skeptics are correct when they state that water is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. While true, carbon dioxide is considered a greater threat to climate change because water only lasts in the atmosphere for eight days before precipitating out while carbon dioxide has a lifetime ranging from 100 to 300 years. In addition, skeptics are right when they claim that the planet has undergone warming and cooling fluctuations throughout history. However, a rise in average temperature by 1°C initially took between 2500 and 5000 years. Currently, we are seeing this increase occur in 100 years. Finally, skeptics will claim that carbon dioxide levels were higher in the past. This is true, but the last time carbon dioxide exceeded present-day concentrations was 3.8 million years ago, and we know very little about what the planet and atmosphere was like in prehistoric times compared to what we know about present conditions.

The data is conclusive and this information needs to be explained without misrepresentation. However, liberal politicians tend to exaggerate the effects, extent, and damage climate change has on the planet, opening themselves up to criticism by skeptics and deniers. This disconnect in communication eliminates the ability to craft common-sense legislation to tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change for future generations.

We need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. One way to do this is to switch our energy sources from fossil fuels to renewable resources like wind and solar power. These sources are carbon free and may be our best weapon to fight climate change. However, the key is to effectively communicate this on a policy level to those who do not accept climate science.

Democrats and Republicans speak different languages when it comes to political issues, especially scientific ones. Recognizing this can give independents an edge when discussing topics related to environmental responsibility. The term “climate change” is a buzzword in politics and using this phrase in conversation with conservatives can cause them to tune out and reject any meaningful ideas or proposals brought up. Therefore, to quote Don Draper from Mad Men, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

To effectively communicate with climate change skeptics, independents should avoid using the term “climate change” altogether. Instead, they should use words like competition, energy choice, energy freedom, national security, and innovation to frame their arguments and appeal to these sensibilities.

For instance, in Florida, the main energy utility company, Florida Power and Light, has a monopoly on the market. Using their resources, they have lobbied state legislatures to create laws and policies that make it nearly impossible for Floridians to go off grid and equip their homes with solar panels. Both parties have accepted millions of dollars in donations from the power utility companies and the politicians refuse to craft favorable policy towards solar energy because they fear being ostracized  by their peers and losing reelection. Therefore, a solutions-based approach to break up monopolies and promote competition in the industry can be a focal point. Promoting competition within the utility industry between renewables and fossil fuels can allow consumers to have a choice in where their energy is sourced. This can appeal to both conservatives and liberals.

In addition, the renewable energy sector is one of the fastest growing job markets in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the two jobs projected to grow the most over the next ten years are wind turbine service technicians (96%) and solar photovoltaic installers (105%). Furthermore, in 2016, the wind and solar industry added 25,000 and 76,000 new jobs respectively and are projected to grow even more in the upcoming decade. With the coal industry in decline, job retraining programs to prepare displaced workers for a career in the renewable energy sector can find support from all sides.  

Furthermore, switching to renewable energy can strengthen national security. The Energy Information Administration reported that the United States has recently moved towards energy independence by increasing domestic natural gas production and decreasing its imports. However, natural gas is a finite resource and the United States ranks fifth in natural gas reserves behind Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Turkmenistan. With  the global population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050, resources will become more difficult to access as these reserves are used and depleted. Because wind and solar are renewable, advocating energy independence by utilizing these resources will decrease our reliance on imports and promote national security.

Finally, independents should point to innovative technology being developed in our country. Recently, the California-based company Rayton Solar developed a process to create solar panels that uses 90% less silicon, are 60% cheaper to produce, and are 25% more efficient than leading competitors. This will lead to decreased installation costs and a reduction in payback time, making solar energy a more affordable option. Creating policy that incentivizes the private sector to invest in research and development technologies will make renewable energy cheaper and more efficient.

We need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and switching from fossil fuels to wind and solar energy is a viable way to achieve this goal. Using effective communication strategies, independents can bridge the divide between liberals and conservatives to create meaningful reform, promote environmental responsibility, and tackle climate change.


Philip P. A. Malley obtained his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Syracuse University investigating the effects of organic matter and salt on the reaction environment in snow and ice. Currently, he is a Master of Public Administration candidate in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University.