Climate change is not the biggest problem facing the nation; talking about it is.
Until we learn to do the one, the other may never be sufficiently solved to stave off the worst of its potential impact. The greatest of these may be a functioning federal government.
Actually, talking about anything in today’s partisan charged atmosphere appears to be the problem of paramount prominence. I will focus here only on climate change.
In today’s political environment, civil discourse is an endangered species immediately followed on the list by bi-partisanship. Disagreements over the accuracy of climate science and causality—often as not—have nothing to do with the evidence of either. Rather they are veiled and not so veiled diatribes about one and another’s parentage, politics and humanity.
Climate has been a much mentioned and an even more maligned topic since Donald John Trump swore his oath of office. Almost from the beginning, he has taken both axe and eraser to federal climate policies and programs.
Pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord and, with it from the international community, rolling back environmental protections and excising mention of climate change from federal websites are among the few promises he has almost managed to keep. Almost, because federal courts have expressed alternative opinions on some of these matters.
Trump and company may be said to contribute mightily to the dog-whistle discourse on global warming gripping the nation; they have not invented it. As with many of his policy positions, Mr. Trump reflects what his core supporters already believe but enjoy hearing come through a presidential loud-speaker nonetheless.
Trump’s personal brand of marketing-style introduces new sets of alternative facts into the public dialogue. Through twits and turns, The Donald dominates the discussion deepening the divide, often making it impossible for truths to rear their heads.
Efforts by the climate community to communicate the existence, cause and effect of global warming have for decades helped to increase understanding of the problem and to introduce response strategies, e.g. increased reliance on clean energy sources, and opportunities, e.g. investments in new technologies and the build-out of resilient community infrastructures.
There is growing evidence—both analytical and anecdotal—the message of the community may be growing stale and less impactful. It is a sign of these divided times and confirmation that a re-do of traditional messaging strategies is in order.
Significant progress towards a low-carbon economy, from this point forward, will not be made if the climate community cannot more effectively engage a wider swath of voters in constructive dialogue. Effective engagement is defined as: providing the information a reasonable person would need to conclude global warming is real and warrants their doing something about it.
It is the “doing something about it” portion of the objective, in particular, that draws attention and should cause the climate community to raise a collective eyebrow.
The term climate community is meant to include environmental organizations, clean energy developers and manufacturers, governments foreign and domestic, lawyers, doctors, urban planners, architects, scientists, researchers, conservationists, and all manner of individuals and organizations. Anyone, in short, worried about global warming and considering doing something about it.
As I had discussed at length in, Climate Change Polls: A Glass Half Empty or Half Full, the canary in the coal mine is findings like these:
- Moderate Republicans polled having become less likely, over the past year, to believe human activity is a cause of global warming;
- Conservative Republican voters placing global warming at the absolute bottom of their list of 23 policy priorities and moderate Republicans positioning it just above the bottom; and,
- A more than 30 percent difference between Democrats and Republican voters who are or even would consider participating in a campaign to convince elected officials to act to combat climate change.
Effective communication of climate change information is difficult and often illusive in today’s divisive cultural context; it should not, however, be thought impossible.
Any useful discussion on how better to communicate with people, who one might have very little in common with but with whom one wants to work collectively to combat global warming, requires a willingness to see things from another’s perspective-not to judge them as individuals on the basis of their affiliations and/or on what others in their affinity group(s) might be saying.
There is, I admit, a certain touchy-feely aspect to honest and open dialogue. A degree of sensitivity and earnestness is involved. Aspects some would pejoratively call political correctnesss, but are more properly matters of common courtesy and respect.
Open and constructive dialogue does not require stepping away from hard topics or concepts that might make someone uncomfortable; but it does involve a willingness to discuss difficult issues—some of which are likely to be taken personally–without getting angry, accusatory or dismissive.
Quite frankly, any discussion of the state of public discourse in the United States may be one of the most difficult challenges facing the climate community—more difficult and divisive even than the global warming discussion itself.
That it often starts out as insulting and incendiary cannot be allowed to prevent it from happening. Failing to step out of the choir box to engage with climate change deniers, doubters and those not yet ready to take a position limits the number of voices ultimately calling for constructive climate action. VOLUME MATTERS.
Communications that cannot cross the divides can only stoke enmity’s fire, while doing very little to increase understanding or to broaden the base of support for constructive collaborative actions. Effective response to global warming will only come about through widespread and stable cultural change.
At the moment, change is more a function of combat between factions than it is conversations across fences. Change by combat rarely lasts; it creates political resentments and “you just wait, we’ll get you” attitudes–similar to the feelings exhibited of late by extremists and hate groups.
I would not go so far as to say slow and steady wins the day. It is most likely time is of the essence and slow is not an option. In truth, neither is steady—at least it shouldn’t be.
Balanced and stable clean energy and environmental policies and programs are needed. The required balance does not occur by spending equal time at the extremes–one administration doing, only to have it undone by the next.
Biennial and quadrennial about-faces are unproductive as matters of public policy; they create and maintain market flux, are a drag on the economy and costly to administer.
The question now becomes what obstacles stand in the way of trans-divisional communication on the part of the climate community?
There are at least three overlapping conditions contributing to the current communications problem:
- A faulty assumption about non-believers of climate change;
- The growing mistrust of experts and factual data; and
- The rise of partisanship beyond the political arena.
The last two are the more difficult to solve as they are subsets of larger swirling social patterns. The first is clearly within the climate community’s control and ability to correct.
Assumptions can be insulting
I had occasion the other day to speak with a stranger about global warming. It happened while waiting for the mechanic to finish my 6-month car inspection—something I seem never to have done in a timely manner. Suffering in the last-minute line, however, affords me an opportunity to meet the most interesting people.
I was scribbling notes for an article I had promised for the following day, when the person next to me asked what I was writing.
The question led to my inquiring in return what they thought of the climate change debate. She answered: I don’t think much of it at all, to be honest. Diogenes wouldn’t have been happier—at last a person who’ll level with me.
Since she started it and we were at least a full half-hour away from receiving our coveted stickers, I asked a second question: what makes you think global warming isn’t happening?
Her answer brought me up short: I didn’t say I didn’t believe it wasn’t happening; I said I don’t think about it much.
Indeed, an honest person—she hadn’t denied its existence. I apologized for the assumption and moved on to less contentious topics like whether the Cubs would catch fire in the closing months of the season and repeat last year’s World Series victory. She looked at me quizzically, so I told her I was looking for a sign the goat was truly gone—I think she wished the same of me.
Later, I started thinking again about the encounter and wondered if the climate gods weren’t sending me a message—at least asking me a question: why did you assume she was a denier? A question to which I had no good answer.
I had simply assumed it, thereby, giving voice to the erroneous claim of: anyone not with me is against me. This kind of thinking is a problem–for me and many others I know in the climate community.
The assumption reflects a we/they attitude, and, if I were to be honest, infuses what must be an off-putting aggressiveness in my own efforts to engage people outside the delineated defenders circle in an actual dialogue that might lead to changed minds and collaboration.
The with-me/against-me hypothesis is far from the only one lodged in the minds of defenders, as they prepare and present materials intended to inform and motivate. There is, for example, the assumption that goes something like: those who don’t believe in climate change are simply unaware of the facts.
It presumes anyone not believing that climate change is occurring is simply an uninitiated soul needing the information I or a favored environmental organization can offer. Once possessed of it, the soul will experience a Saul on his way to Damascus catharsis—ever after joining the ranks of the climate cognoscenti.
How should I put this? Bull-puckey! These are faulty and arrogant assumptions and likely to get the assumer tagged as one of those–elitist know-nothing establishment scum researchers looking to live off government grants rather than getting a real job—experts. The type Trump is always whining about and telling his supporters to ignore.
There are many reasons a person denies all or portions of climate change theory—some substantive, some not. These can include:
- The fear of facing Earth’s possible mortality, much as they might fear facing their own;
- Overwhelming amounts of contradictory information they encounter in the media, from friends, political and community leaders, their electric utility, strangers in line waiting to get their cars inspected and elsewhere;
- Not being much interested because of: a feeling of helplessness; an innate belief no one else is going to do much about it; or because they really don’t care; and,
- Having seen pictures of the poles greening because of rising temperatures and levels of CO2, thinking this is a good thing.
Belief is not the direct result of having been presented with a sound logical construct or even a series of individually known factual statements. In the minds of many 1+2+3+4 does not always add up to 11.
How many times have you or a friend simply ignored the instructions written on the back of a package? I suspect this is a more male than female trait, but it has likely happened to most of us or to someone we were with when it happened.
Why would anyone assume the manufacturer writing the instructions thought there could be something gained by a customer’s failed experience? I’ve asked myself that very question more than once, without enlightenment.
I remain convinced there must be a reason however. It’s just like the sneaky corporatists to hide it from me–just they wait, I’ll get ‘em. (Oops! Did I say that out loud?)
My point? We humans do not always make logical decisions. We are, after all, emotional creatures. Economists finally figured this out when it dawned on them the market’s invisible hand had been giving them the finger for thinking consumers and investors always made rational decisions.
In the light of that new dawn, the emerging field of behavioral economics was born –offering a radically different view of how people and organizations operate. Climate researchers would do well, I think, to follow a similar path of enlightenment to birth a new field of inquiry called behavioral environmentalism.
This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Earth v Trump: The Climate Defenders’ Guide to Today’s Politics. Look for it soon, to read the rest of the chapter.
Teaser photo: Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg, originally from Google Art Project.