Can the public discourse snap out of its own negative feedback loop?

A core tenet of climate science involves feedback loops, which as the Guardian explains, “is the equivalent of a vicious or virtuous circle — something that accelerates or decelerates a warming trend.” Many climate feedback scenarios are worrisome, and some others have been overblown. The general concern is lucidly articulated by one environmental policy expert, who writes: “Climate change feedback loops are self-reinforcing cycles; problems that echo off each other and quickly spiral out of control.”


Scientifically speaking, how climate feedbacks will play out remains to be determined. But there can be no doubt that the public discourse is trapped in a negative feedback loop. To a great degree, this reflects the larger political landscape that has reduced dialogue on most issues to mud wrestling. As Alex Berezow wrote in the American Spectator last year: “One thing that both sides of the political spectrum seem to agree on is the notion that political discourse in this country has become increasingly shrill, hyperbolic, and dominated by two extremes.”

Berezow goes on to cite climate change as “perhaps the best example” of a scientific issue caught in this vortex. He writes: “One extreme argues that climate change will cause billions of people to starve/drown/burn/die of horrible diseases. The other extreme says that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by people wanting to establish global socialism.”

These extremes are fortified through their separate echo chambers (via political actors, interest groups, partisan bloggers, and media outlets), which amplify the polar ends of the climate spectrum. The Web, for all its positives, is also partly responsible for this feedback loop, as many of us have built customized media silos. Such cocooning encourages our ideological and political biases.

Mainstream media, because they are attracted to the loudest voices and most politically agitated — the “bright, shiny objects,” they like to say — reinforce the loop with their coverage of the extremes. For example, a recent New York Times story reported:

Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.

As the Times story makes clear, the Republican Party (and one of its presidential candidates, Newt Gingrich) is echoing this U.N. connection on the campaign trail, which then reinforces an eco-conspiracy narrative that gets amplified at the national level. We’ve already seen how this dynamic has shaped the election-year debate on climate change. One side (the GOP) has made rejection of climate science a litmus test for electability. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, eloquent climate writers argue that civilization is doomed if urgent action is not taken, and quickly, on climate change.

Democrats by and large don’t echo this argument (much to the chagrin of climate activists), so there is not an equivalency. Still, that either/or frame pretty much sums up the terms of the public debate, as the American Spectator‘s Berezow noted: Climate change is either part of a massive hoax or it’s going to be the end of mankind. He also suggests there is a “bright side” to the “two commonalities between the warring factions: (1) Neither argument remotely resembles reality; and (2) Both sides find it politically expedient to smear the credibility of scientists.”

The implication here, it seems, is that the two extremes cancel each other out. Evidence for that, however, is sorely lacking. Indeed, the extremes have created a noxious feedback loop that has made the climate debate increasingly nasty and irrational. Is there any way to break this vicious cycle?

Keith Kloor

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