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Great Moments in Rhetoric: Climate Change and the IPCC Mission

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Good communicators are transparent about their purpose.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mission to take “sophisticated and sometimes inconclusive science, and boil it down to usable advice for lawmakers.” The article speculates (via scientists working with the IPCC) that institutional bias toward oversimplification is what lies behind the erroneous projection that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035.

If there is anyone out there who still believes in truly objective science—or truly objective anything—I’d like to meet them. It should surprise no one that we constantly arrange facts to meet our pet goals. And we infuse those facts with the urgency that fits our purpose rather than an urgency arising from the facts themselves. This is a human trait and we should expect it in every communication. Facts are facts, yes. But facts are also small pieces of a rhetorical puzzle that can (and will) be built together in a number of different ways. Is there ever a time when we experience facts in isolation—without some rhetorical flourish—that is, without some political aim that wishes to move us toward a favored action?


But persuasion is not wrong. It is a necessary piece of human life on this planet. All our actions, all our thinking, all our communication, all our learning, all of most everything is organized by political pulls. That’s not overstatement: even the best among us are always motivated by partisan or self-serving objectives. Rather than resist this fact of human life, it makes more sense to look closely at the objectives that drive us. Of course, there are two sides to every story, including this large story on climate change. Sure the WSJ is written from a conservative perspective and this article was meant to shine light on hypocritical methods of their opponents, which always makes for good reading and sells newspapers.

It’s just important that we keep in mind what stake our communication partners have in moving us one way or another. And perhaps as communicators, we do best when we state our goals early. In fact, I think our audiences are put in a positive state of listening when they hear our disclosures up front.


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