The downsides to a take-no-prisoners style of communication.

Those who closely follow online climate change discourse know that it feels like roller derby: Sharp elbowed players from opposing teams chase each other around in circles, trying to hip check one another into the stands. Round and round.

Or as scientist Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute puts it, “the debate over climate change often takes the form of ‘tit-for-tat’ blogs, conflicting commentary, and dogmatic ideological statements.”


That debate is less about climate change and driven more by politics and personal vilification. Witness, for example, the torrents of hate mail sent to Kerry Emanuel of MIT and Katherine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University (see here and here), after conservative bloggers and pundits singled out the two climate scientists.

This latest bit of ugliness seems to confirm what Nature said in a 2010 editorial, that climate scientists had to realize “they are in a street fight.” Some have engaged in the call to battle, aggressively confronting what they see as unfair attacks. So have numerous others, who are pushing back with initiatives on the legal, educational and advocacy fronts.

Taken together, the intimidation tactics of climate science bashers and the new pressure campaigns, by allies of the concerned climate community, promise to, if nothing else, ratchet up the rhetoric of both sides and deepen the politicization of global warming. Just what the public discourse doesn’t need. Meanwhile, the conflict-loving media will eat it up and stoke the fires.

For climate campaigners and their adversaries, the escalating war of wits is a fait accompli. They are not constrained by how they might be perceived by the public at large. But the stakes are higher for the climate science community, which must defend itself against scurrilous attacks while staying above the fray. Not an easy balancing act. Nature, in a follow-up editorial in 2010, offered some constructive guidance:

This journal has already warned that climate scientists have to accept that they are in a street fight. They should expect a few low blows. The key is to learn which punches to roll with and which to block and counter.

That seems like a wise strategy, the kind that underlies some martial arts, such as Aikido and Tai Chi. Alas, many in the climate arena, on both ends of the spectrum, prefer a smashmouth style of fighting. That means every provocation is taken up, every quote is potential fodder, every action is open to being exploited for partisan advantage. This is especially the case in the climate blogosphere, where the tone is often shrill and insults are routinely traded. Most arguments, as climate scientist Simon Donner has observed are personalized and venomous:

Just as political pundits focus on political maneuvering rather than actual policy debates, many bloggers focus on bashing each other rather than discussing the issues. We do so because it appears that shouting is the best way to get heard. So just as cable news channels have trended towards the extremes and trumped-up scandals to capture the dwindling audience and dwindling advertising dollars, many bloggers end up focusing on the controversies rather than the consensus in part just to stay afloat in a crowded online sea.

The climate blogosphere, having established itself as part of the larger media ecosystem, could easily help improve the quality of the climate conversation. But only if a salon is able to replace the roller derby.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.