Climate change has taken on political dimensions. That’s odd because I don’t see people choosing sides over E=MC2 or other fundamental facts of science.
– Neil deGrass Tyson –
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the intersection between climate change and politics. In fact, climate doesn’t respect politics. I have worked on climate change issues for over twenty-five years. Much has changed. The science is better and our data is more robust. However, much has not changed at all. Even after twenty-five years, we debate climate change through an emotional lens. Belief still prevails. Further, many people do not base their beliefs on facts. Instead, they rely on popular and social media, and the influence of ill-informed friends and colleagues.
Three Simple Questions about Climate Change and Politics
When I taught fourth year engineering courses at the University of Alberta, I would start each course with a series of simple questions. The questions set the tone for my lectures. Also, they sent a clear message to my students about my approach to environment and sustainability issues. During the first class, I asked:
How many of you believe in climate change?
Often, being a conservative group of engineering students they were shy, but about half raised their hands. Then, I’d ask the second question:
How many of you DO NOT believe in climate change?
Again, about half raised their hand, but with more vigour. The class would become boisterous, with lots of cheering, jeering, and comments back and forth. This was normal for these questions. In fact, I never got a quiet, dignified, or passive response. My students were adamant in their views. BUT, then I’d ask the third question:
What does BELIEF have to do with it?
Their response was startling, if not consistent year after year. In fact, many students got angry with me, affronted that I challenged their beliefs. They held these opinions and did not wish to probe them. They were comfortable with their world-view and with the righteousness of their opinions. While they were happy to argue with each other about climate, they were uncomfortable when challenged about the foundations of those beliefs. They got angry!
Thinking, Feeling and Knowing are Different
Students accused me of gaming them and, of course, this was a setup. I know that we often interchange the terms think, feel, and believe. However, we seldom acknowledge the subtle differences between these words. We act like believing something is the same as knowing it. Further, we act like knowing something is the same as how we feel about it. In debating a nuanced issue, like climate change, this is a perilous path.
This confusion complicates the climate dialogue. We confuse our feelings with our knowledge. We base our arguments on those feelings and, just like my students, it affronts us when someone challenges this foundation. The confusion also leads us into some unseemly behaviours. We attack folks on the other side of the issue. The debate becomes much like a football game, with sides drawn up, and everyone dressed in their team colours. But, unlike a football game, there is no real winner. The climate is changing. This is factual. Making clever arguments and scoring on the opposition will not alter the facts. It is what it is.
In a recent post on Medium, Matthew Nisbet discussed the influence of “Climate Change Tribalism” on the climate debate. Like Matthew, I believe that the way forward is to:
… simply recognize and affirm shared identities, ideals, and beliefs.
If we are to solve problems, we must work together. To work together, we must break away from the habit of treating climate change like a team sport, and cooperate. We need to team up to fight a common enemy, the impact that climate change is having on our way of life.
Climate Change and Politics is the Norm
Politics has always charged the climate dialogue. In fact, when my boss first approached me about running this file, twenty-five years ago, I responded with a comment I have lived to regret:
Why me, I don’t even believe in climate change!
Well, once I got my hands on the IPCC reports, did some digging, chatted with real climate experts, my position changed. It moved from one based on feelings to one based on peer reviewed scientific facts. No matter how inconvenient it is to accept that we are having a detrimental effect on the climate, it is an irrefutable fact of life. Knowledge converted me! I learned that I had based my original position on fear, and on my own vested interest in conventional energy…
I like my car and I don’t want to pay more for gas!
But those were feelings. The facts did not support that world-view, and I had to change my mind. It was difficult. But, I got there.
I share the story of my journey to explain my view that our feelings often guide our opinions on climate. Further, attacking feelings does not change minds. In my case, reading the scientific research and listening to real experts changed me. I moved beyond the influence of my industry colleagues and friends and started to tune into a different mindset, one based on facts.
Climate Tribalism is Simplistic
It is sad that we allow climate tribalism to drive the debate. We see concern for the climate as a left wing agenda. Conversely, we see any challenge of climate science as a right wing agenda. The truth is far more complex. Only by stepping beyond these simplistic stereotypes can we move towards resolving our climate problem.
Treating climate change as black-and-white is simplistic. In fact, in choosing up sides, we fall into the trap of believing all we need to do is win the debate. It’s not that simple. Achieving climate resiliency demands real action and the best ideas from across the political spectrum. We need to blend solid science with good economic analysis and wrap it all together in a policy bundle blind to our politics. We can disagree on approach, but we are all in this together. Climate change doesn’t care about politics. It affects us all regardless of our political beliefs.
Years ago, I tried to top everybody, but I don’t anymore. I realized it was killing conversation. When you’re always trying for a topper you aren’t really listening. It ruins communication.
– Groucho Marx
Taking up sides encourages us to argue and blame. We feel the need to “win” every conversation and prove that we are smarter than the other guy. It’s almost as if we love the sound of our own voices so much we are deaf to anything others may say.
Back in my teaching days I would tell my students that the secret to good negotiation is shutting up and really listening. In business, as elsewhere in life, people often tell you what they truly want, consciously or unconsciously. In fact, many of us are not good at hiding our needs and wants. Good negotiators are superb listeners.
Fewer Personal Attacks Improve the Climate Change Dialogue in Politics
When we argue from our emotions, we often indulge in personal attacks. We feel that if we undermine the credentials of the other guy it adds power to our own arguments. While it is fair to seek clarity about the credentials of experts, attacking their motives does nothing to improve our own position. The unfortunate truth is we are all biased. We all have motives. It is simplistic to argue because someone has a vested interest in an issue; they have nothing valid to offer. This is a red herring that achieves nothing. Sure it is a good courtroom tactic, but it is not good science, nor does it help us solve the climate problem. We can make the other guy go away. However, the climate is still changing and it will still affect us all. Winning the argument in this way doesn’t solve the problem.
This behaviour is common in social media. I have seen folks ridiculed about their looks, or race, or nationality, because they had the nerve to disagree on a technical point. This trivializes the discussion. Further, it degrades everyone and derails constructive dialogue. We need to not only avoid these tactics, but call them out when we see them. It isn’t helping.
Getting on the Same Page on Climate Change and Politics
We must get on the same page about climate change. The issue is complex, and it is scary. In fact, not taking action scares me more than the steps we must take to fix this problem. But, both action and inaction are scary. Climate change affects us all, and it has no respect for political boundaries. It doesn’t care if we are conservative or liberal, if we are religious or atheist. It hits us all the same way. While we can disagree about methods, we must still get on with fixing the problem. Further, the best way forward is to stop attacking each other and turn our attention to attacking the problem.
This will require discipline. We need to stop polarizing the discussion; it isn’t a football game, and football tactics will not work. Further, demonizing the other guy doesn’t do very much either, other than make everyone angry. Indeed, we cannot find effective solutions if we direct all of our energy at hurting each other. Climate change is hurting us already and we need not make it worse by hurting each other. It is a waste of valuable time and energy.
Let’s listen to each other. Open the doors to the tent and entertain good ideas, wherever they come from on the political spectrum. We must treat this as an urgent risk and move beyond the politics in climate change.
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