The Climate Change Debate: Shift Focus to Weather


In a debate one side wins and the other side loses. How many debates end with the losing side agreeing that they were wrong? It doesn’t happen. And that is why the climate change debate is not converting deniers into believers. Each side on this issue is focused on rolling over the opposition. I believe there is a better way to change minds: It’s the weather, stupid!

The recent national student walkout from schools to draw attention to climate change is certainly converting more youth and the college educated people to become believers. But protesting as an organizing tactic has limited effectiveness, for it is a strategy that must employ multiple tactics to win over deniers or doubters. Doubters abound, unfortunately. According to a recent poll taken by the Climate Mobilization Project, while 36% of the public believe that Climate Change is a serious problem, 36% of the population also believe it is a minor problem or are not worried at all. Consequently, we need to think anew about how to reach those folks and the other 28% who do not believe it is a serious problem.

One approach that should be pursued is to focus on something that is more mundane and not as catastrophic as earth’s destruction. Let’s try talking about the weather. That is not an attempt to diminish the importance of climate change. Instead it lends itself to having a discussion not a debate, because everyone talks about the weather, Republicans and Democrats alike. And it impacts all of us. So, where does that discussion begin?

The starting point is recognizing that extreme weather is becoming more frequent. The statistics are certainly there. For instance, in January 2017, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 2016 was the hottest year on record. It was the third year in a row to set a record for average surface temperatures, a continuation of a long-term warming trend.

But just laying out facts, particularly if they are not tied to personal experience, don’t carry much weight. Studies have shown that our beliefs more often stem from our personal experiences than from abstract concepts. It follows that climate change believers need to talk to those who have had their job or quality of life negatively impacted by extreme weather conditions. Here are just two examples of how that can be done. 

Montana has voted only once for a Democratic president since 1980, Bill Clinton’s first race in 1992. Barack Obama lost by 2% in his first race while Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by over 20%. However, during this same period, Montanans have been represented more years in Congress by Democratic than Republican senators. Democratic Senator Jon Tester addressed a Bozeman community gathering of 200 people in February 2017, consisting mostly of farmers and ranchers, to describe how climate change has resulted in Montana having less water availability, increased weed growth, intensified and more frequent drought.

By grounding the issue on how the extreme weather conditions are impacting their jobs and daily lives, the denial of climate change begins to weaken. For instance, rancher Erik Kalsta, who attended the meeting, was quoted by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle as saying that he doesn’t feel that successful agricultural producers are totally in denial — they may not like the term, but they respond to the changes in the weather.

Or take the case of Florida, a swing state. Florida is counted as the most vulnerable state to climate change damage resulting from flooding and massive storms. In the last three years, Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Michael in 2018 have battered Florida’s southeast and northwest, for a combined $13 billion in property damage insurance claims, excluding flood damage not covered by homeowners’ insurance. Regardless of party affiliation, residents and businesses were devastated in Florida’s Republican-oriented panhandle and the Democratic-leaning Miami-Dade region. Irma alone prompted evacuation orders for 6.5 million people in Florida, the largest evacuation in modern U.S. history.

People do not want to keep paying more and more for catastrophes that can be avoided. The deniers argue that the weather always changes, so there is nothing to be done. Or they argue, it’s part of an historical regular cycle. They are falling into the same abstract talk that has burdened climate change believers. They are not recognizing that most non-engaged people are more concerned about how their lives are being directly impacted now and not how they have been in the distant past or will be in the distant future.

The dominant political response from both parties has been to provide financial assistance to the weather victims and to offer proposed adjustments in their physical infrastructures to limit damage in the future. Both approaches are expensive and will continue to grow in costs as massive storms and rising incidents of floods and drought become more frequent. The question of who pays for these additional costs allows the discussion of climate change to move to identifying who can do something now to reduce future massive costs going to taxpayers. And, that comes down to replacing carbon-based energy sources with renewable energy sources.

By addressing how to mitigate the destruction of personal property and the taxpayer burden for covering those losses, a discussion can lead to figuring out who is benefiting by stalling or opposing this mitigation. The answer becomes readily apparent: those who have financial investments in the old technology that are dependent on carbon fuels, which has contributed to extreme weather conditions. Shouldn’t our political leaders be addressing  the broader community’s interest in protecting their jobs and homes, than be concerned about protecting the status quo of those who are protecting their own interests first?

This is a message that could resonate with a broad swath of voters from republican states like Montana to purple states like Florida. It begins with a discussion about the weather, not a megaphone announcing an impending doom.

We can do something about the weather!

The question that needs to be posed to those who are ambivalent about the seriousness of climate change is, do you want to continue to live with more disruptions in your life?  Do you want your future to continue to be uncertain and pay more taxes for a never-ending stream of measures trying to reduce future damages? If not, then the other option is to recognize that we can create a better, more livable environment by altering our technology to lessen our carbon emissions. All that is stopping us from taking that approach is action from our government to represent the needs of the majority of people not the minority who financially benefit from inaction.

Image: Wikimedia

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics


  1. If it is “all about the weather” then I’ll just grab an umbrella or buy an air conditioner. I’ll adapt to the change. That’s a fine message – because we will all need to do that, but it isn’t a message saying “Stop making fossil fuel driven cars” or “Renewable Energy Now!”

    Climate communicators have been working for years to distinguish how climate is different than weather. Weather is a result of the climate. Climate is the machine driving the weather. We need to modify the machine, not the end result.

    • Rebecca, thanks for your comment. My piece is not denying that Climate is the machine driving the weather But weather is a way to getting to that conversation with some sectors of the population who resist even talking about climate change. All of the efforts need to continue to get off the carbon consumption menu for our society, but there is more than one way to accomplish that goal. The goal is to move the 28 percent of the populace who do not consider climate change a serious threat to our planet but would be open to considering that position.

  2. I find it interesting how the climate activists keep searching for the right “framing” of the debate. It’s clear that the end-of-the-world rhetoric induces fatalism or denialism. Gov. Inslee has tried to make the case that addressing the climate challenge is really a jobs program, given all the low-carbon technology. There’s been the science-versus-God framing that is likely too “tribal.” The carbon-tax solution suffers from that fatal word, tax, and the effort to create a coalition of beneficiaries from the new revenue has also fizzled.
    So here’s Licata’s attempt to bring the discussion more into the practical and the here-and-now. That approach should not obviate the need to address “climate,: and it may be an effective way to get more people comfortable with the shifting politics.


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