March 18, 2020


Joel Nodelman

Moving the Goalposts in Climate Argument: 1 Sure Way to Get Nowhere Fast

About the author

Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.

In this video I reflect on moving the goalposts in climate argument, or, as I have learned, one sure way to get nowhere fast.

This pops up everywhere, in our relationships, at work, and in politics. So, it should come as no surprise when we see it in climate discussions.

Moving the goalposts happens when somebody changes the conditions of an argument to avoid being wrong.

I think the best example comes from its alias. Some folks call this the  "Not a True Scotsman” argument.

Moving the Goalposts in Climate Argument - Not a True Scotsman

For example, I could say:

"All Scotsmen wear kilts.” 

And you reply:

"My uncle is a Scot, and he never wears a kilt.”

So I say:

"Then your uncle is not a true Scotsman!"

There is a lot going on in this simple chat. First, you note that I never define Scotsman. When you offer a definition, I simply challenge it, and I win. Second, this is an obvious example of power gaming. When you let me redefine things as we go along, you give me power. I'm the boss. I always get my way. I change the rules as I see fit. And you must agree to my terms to stay in the discussion, or so I’d have you believe. And I win. Finally, there is no end. For every step you take, I move the goalposts out one more step. And I win.

Moving the Goalposts in Climate Argument - The Test

Often, we may be blind to this tactic, but there is a clue that we can use as a test. If you ever catch yourself saying or feeling:

"Are they never satisfied?"

You are likely engaged in a moving the goalposts argument.

Moving the Goalposts in Climate Negotiation

We see this a lot in climate negotiation. One I often get goes like this:

I say:

"I think Alberta should take action on climate change.”

And I am told:

"Albertans don't believe in climate change."

But I answer:

"I'm an Albertan, and I accept that climate change is real and we need to take action."

And then I am told:

"But, you're not a real Albertan. You don't work in energy. You are not a blue-collar worker. You weren't born here!"

Do you see how the parameters changed? Living in Alberta for most of my life isn’t sufficient, and by this ever-changing definition even my kids, born in Alberta, are not Real Albertans, so don't have a say in this discussion.  They come from the wrong stock and do the wrong work.

In this example, I don't get a say in the discussion's framework. The other guy gets to change it whenever he wants. This is a no-win situation.

Moving the Goalposts - A Symptom of Denial

Moving the goalposts is a symptom of the denial stage of climate grief. While folks may seem to bargain, they are actually using the tactic to avoid discussion. They may even seem reasonable, but in fact it is a no-win situation that can go on forever, if we let it. 

Once again, this is not the time to offer facts and figures. They’re not listening. They are simply working out how to counter you in an ever-descending spiral until you throw up your hands in disgust and give up.

Moving the Goalposts in Climate Argument - What to Do

We need to practice active listening, be patient and, when we can, ask folks to define their parameters. For example, I could say:

"I am confused, what do you mean by a Real Albertan? And, how does this apply to climate action?"

They may push back, but this is still more constructive than giving them permission to move the goalpost at every step. And we must offer our own definitions as appropriate. I could say:

"I am a real Albertan. I lived here most of my life. And I support climate action."

We must remember we have a say in framing the discussion. We need not give power to the other guy. This should be a fair exchange. They may get angry, but you may decide that you don't need their good will, especially if they are a troll.

We have the power to have a meaningful discussion with folks who want to make a difference. If we do this, we can actually reach the goal line. 

Let's Chat

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Join the conversation by commenting below. Here are a few questions to stimulate your commenting juices.

When is the last time you encountered a situation where somebody kept moving the goalposts on you? 

Did you recognize the tactic right away, or did it take a while for it to dawn on you?  

Have you ever caught yourself unintentionally moving the goalposts in an argument?

I have been discussing climate tactics for a while now. Here is a link to an earlier videowhen I first started on this theme. Once you start to see these things, it is hard to ignore them. 

If you wish to contact us directly, feel free to use our handy contact form.

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