March 25, 2019

Fear, Loathing and Climate Change

Joel Nodelman

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.

Climate change has become a topic of political debate and controversy. Fear, loathing and climate change are inexorably intertwined. Twenty or so years ago, the climate was generally below the public radar. The debate was between academics, industry representatives, and bureaucrats. There was some political involvement, but it was sporadic and minimal. Canada signed onto the Kyoto accord as a result of political intervention. However, the general support to achieve climate resiliency objectives across government never materialized.

The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.

– Winston Churchill –

The current state of affairs, where everyone has an opinion about climate change, is a good thing. The discussion is not always scientifically rigorous, nor is it generally courteous and polite. In fact, mostly it is raucous and extremely polarized. Ever the optimist, I believe that it is a serious debate that ultimately should lead to concrete outcomes.

Reacquainting Myself with Fear, Loathing and Climate Change

Over the last two months, the local newspaper interviewed me for two articles about climate change. They asked some general questions about the impact of climate change on the infrastructure here in St. Albert. I was generally optimistic about the ability of the community to respond to the changing climate. However, I cautioned that the weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable and strange. These factors make infrastructure planning more difficult. Therefore, I emphasized the need to apply risk management processes to manage this uncertainty.

I was not shocked to see the comments on the articles both online and in letters to the editor. Generally, these comments came from a “feeling” perspective. Many commenters stated that the climate is not changing, and if it is, that would be a good thing. Certainly, no need to worry. They also argued that those who “believe” in the myth of climate change, are in it for personal gain. Finally, while emphasizing that they are not engineers, they are confident that engineered systems can withstand anything the climate throws at them. Some of the comments came from as far away as Germany. Some were very personal.

These sorts of comments have been the story of my life for the last twenty-five years. But, it is more intense now, and the comments are coming from new audiences. These are folks who never expressed an opinion about climate change in the past. In fact, the comments are pretty well correlated with political parties and positions and generally couched in socio-economic terms. The dialogue has changed, becoming more intense and nastier. Remaining calm is difficult. I have come face-to-face with fear, loathing and climate change.

More Fear and Loathing, Less Climate Resiliency – The Dialogue Has Changed

How do we move forward in a polarized world, especially a world where the discourse has become increasingly personal?

I used to say that I would know when I had made it when my mom understood my work. It took almost twenty years, but she finally got it towards the end of her life. She would call me to chat about how the climate had changed throughout her life. With public education, folks start to engage in the issue. Engagement is one of the first steps toward concrete solutions. Finally, we have the social discussion that was so missing over most of the last 25 years.

With that said, recognizing progress is hard when the feedback is so polarized. We have entered a phase in the climate debate with many opinions founded on very few facts. In fact, the scientific method and technical expertise often are viewed with suspicion that translates in derision in online discourse. Even with all of that, we are talking! Most folks are aware of climate change. Also, some go as far as having opinions, and most importantly, ideas on what we should do next. Even in this environment, many opinions and ideas come from a solid foundation based on experience and scientific information. This is a good thing!

It Takes Patience

Fear, Loathing and Climate Change
Sometimes I Want to Run Off Screaming Into the Night

For those of us who have been in this game for the long haul, participating in these discussions takes patience. Even so, there are heroes in this game. One is Katharine Hayhoe, who pursues these discussions with dignity and an openness to dialogue. All the while she remains firm in her commitment to affecting meaningful change. As a practitioner in climate change and resiliency, I endeavour to model my approach on that leadership. Once again, this takes patience, something that I have not been known for throughout my professional career. There are times that I feel like running off screaming into the night.

What About the Trolls?

When it comes to fear, loathing, and climate change, there is no group more challenging than internet trolls. These people take it as a matter of personal pride to attack anything related to climate change. Even worse, some organizations promote these attacks for political gain and to support their own financial objectives. Short term gain for long term pain!

I strongly recommend ignoring the trolls. Since their criticism does not come from a genuine source, you cannot convince a troll of anything. The process is geared towards engaging folks in long, torturous, and personal debates. The discussions never end.

I generally disengage when the discussion starts to become personal. When the other person begins to question my motives and my integrity, I am done. This discussion does nothing to advance practical solutions. I believe that these folks will come to their senses when they experience climate change in their own daily lives. Some may never see it at all. In any event, I remain a results-oriented engineer. Engaging with folks whose mission is preventing progress does nothing to address the issues we all face. Move on!

I have noted that there are trolls on both sides of this issue. Engaging with those that will hear no objections to the climate change dialogue are equally as challenging to manage. We need to understand that questioning and discussion are critical elements of a robust scientific method. As such, engaging with folks that have misgivings about climate science is good. We should do so at every opportunity. This is a healthy discourse unless it turns into a battle between pro and con trolls. While these mêlées are fun to watch, they achieve nothing. Once again, we should move on.

The Issue is Multifaceted

I have come to believe that even saying that there are two sides, polarizes the discussion. Further, it trivializes the magnitude of the risk. This issue is not a matter of opinion but is a case of observable facts. We observe weird and wacky weather systems. Things have changed, even throughout my lifetime. The question is not if the climate is changing. It is about why the climate is changing and what we need to do. As a risk manager, this is bread and butter stuff. We look at the data, we estimate the likelihoods, and we evaluate the consequences. This is the discussion that we should be having. Currently, we are stalling at “if.”

The Fear and Loathing in Climate Change is Real

It is wise to remember that there are folks who have legitimate concerns about our response to climate change. We must treat those concerns with respect and engage those folks in developing the solutions to the climate change enigma.

I recall during the Fort McMurray fire comments from climate change practitioners that were unhelpful. They suggested that since the community was already evacuated, we should just shut down the oil sands plants and shutter the community. They contended that that would be best for the climate. I was astonished by the lack of compassion and sensitivity exhibited by those comments. People’s lives were in upheaval. They were living in shelters and were worried about their entire life, their home, their community, their friends and family. These comments simply rubbed salt into very raw wounds. Furthermore, they created yet another group that believes climate advocates are just “nutters” with no sense of the real world.

These are complex socio-economic issues that require nuanced approaches. Simplistic solutions can have significant unintended consequences. Once again, this is the realm of risk management. What consequences do we anticipate from our proposed solutions? What are the broader implications? Who is impacted and how can we mitigate that impact? We need answers to these questions and more. To get to those answers we have to have a fulsome, and broadly engaged, debate. Further, we have to include the voices of those folks that are directly affected by our actions. For some people, this is very personal, and we need to address their concerns.

Final Thoughts

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

– Winston Churchill –

The fact that people do not fully comprehend the magnitude of climate change risk does not make them enemies. Believing the comforting rhetoric that everything is alright does not make them adversaries. I see them all as fellow travellers that have not seen the light. It is our job, as knowledgeable practitioners to help people understand the risk. Also, we must do so in a way that addresses their immediate concerns.

People have lives to live, incomes to earn, and families to raise. We need to provide context to allow folks to integrate the reality of a changing climate into hectic lives. We have to make the response real for them and provide workable solutions. As I stated above, these are complex socio-economic questions that will require nuanced answers.

My personal lack of patience prods me towards giant leaps. However, if we are to solve the climate change problem, we are looking for many smaller steps. This approach has worked in the past when we have challenged complex problems as a society. The same unified approach is what we need now. This will require engagement, dialogue, and patience. But, it can be done! By focussing on many small, achievable steps, we will reduce fear and loathing about climate change.

Call to Action

You are not alone. There are folks here to help you out. Seek the advice of climate risk and resiliency experts. Do not be afraid to engage in the debate. We all have something valuable to offer.

We provide ongoing commentary on these issues. Feel free to contact us, we are always happy to discuss your climate, risk and resiliency.

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