How to engage positively with global warming skeptics.
Imagine you’re at a cocktail party, and you’re introduced to a guy named Dirk. Dirk calls himself a libertarian. After a few minutes of chatting, Dirk starts to suspect that you might care about the fate of the Amazon. Tipsy and irate, he starts ranting about global warming, how much he hates environmentalists, and how Al Gore is a money-grubbing hack.
Then he turns to you, purple with rage, ready to crush his martini glass in his fist. “AND I SUPPOSE YOU BELIEVE THIS CRAP ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING?” he seethes.
What do you say to such a hothead? He’s ambushed you with the topic, and now he’s screaming un-cited statistics into your face. The guy seems like an asshole—and because he keeps interrupting you, he’s clearly insulted by the very thought of counter-argument. So now what?
Here’s what I say: “Actually, I don’t think it matters whether global warming exists or not.”
Dirk calms down. Dirk takes a breath. Now he wants to talk. He pegged you as a blame-America-first liberal, and now you sound like you agree with him. His ears open, his blood pressure subsides.
Now he’s curious: Why doesn’t it matter?
Dealing with Dirk
“Dirk” is inspired by an actual person, and this conversation basically happened. I’m glad I didn’t have a full-on fight with Dirk, because he turned out to be a decent guy: a sculptor, a great storyteller, and a volunteer for the post-Katrina relief effort. If I had fallen into the usual debate, Dirk and I would never talk again. But we have, and we agree on many different things.
But there are Dirks everywhere. I’ve met Dirk, or his wife, or his kids, at least 100 times. Dirk is a popular character in Western Pennsylvania. He’s intelligent, skilled, and a hard worker. He’s a responsible gun owner and loves quality beer. Dirk smokes marijuana by the brick and is totally in love with his wife (as he should be, because most people can’t stand him). When he’s not fuming over “dirty hippies,” Dirk can be downright cool.
The problem with Dirk is that he’s socially awkward and easily bruised. People have hurt him in the past. He’s very confident about his lifestyle—so confident, he sees no other reasonable way to live—and diversity gives him the creeps. He’s always being told how to live, what to wear, what rules to follow. Yet Dirk sees his tax-money squandered by people who seem less motivated. This is when the asshole comes out. What’s this bullshit about carbon footprints? Why should “we” bow to foreign interests? What’s this Kyoto Protocol crap, anyway?
Newsflash: Most People Are Not Scientists
I’ve stopped arguing with Dirk about global warming for one difficult reason, a reason I am loath to admit: In truth, I can’t explain it. Sure, I accept global warming as an urgent theory, and the evidence for it seems overwhelming. But when I try to accept it as truth, I ask myself the following questions:
- What is ozone? How come the deteriorating ozone layer is responsible for trapped heat?
- Specifically, how does breaking apart a Styrofoam box affect global warming?
- Using graph paper, how would I draft a chart that demonstrates the effects of global warming? What measurements would I use? How does this “prove” that global warming exists?
- Indeed, why do I believe this data? Do I perform the research myself? Have I ever met a researcher in the field? Given my non-existent background in physics, couldn’t the Giant Spaghetti Monster be just as responsible for global warming, for all I know?
The problem is that most people can’t provide a detailed argument for (or against) global warming. The relationship between solar radiation and the atmosphere is a subject that only scientists fully appreciate. We get the basic idea, but that’s it. Most of us are too ill-equipped to argue either side. Meanwhile, global warming is a slow and invisible process. Cold weather in December doesn’t prove the Earth is healthy, nor does one Indian Summer prove environmental collapse. Even if average Americans were experts in meteorological trends, global warming is the stuff of science, and science only produces theories. Science is the humblest field there is, because scientists don’t believe in “truth.” Evolution is just a theory. Nuclear energy is just a theory. All reality, as we claim to perceive it, is just a theory.
If Dirk and I debate global warming, we’ll sound like idiots. I have a basic idea of how global warming is supposed to happen, and Dirk claims to know otherwise. But the physical properties of solar energy are far beyond our knowledge. We can’t summon the simplest facts. How does solar energy convert into heat? How quickly are ice caps melting, and how do we compare this to billions of years of temperature trends? Unless we carry around bundles of research abstracts, all our “data” are hopelessly simplistic. We’re debating research we’ve never actually read. We might as well argue about how to build the best submarine, because we know more hard facts about naval engineering than we do about climate change.
Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute
“Global warming is all beside the point,” I say to Dirk. “The problem is pollution and waste. What kind of moron is pro-waste? That’s just bad business.”
I use this all the time, because the tactic works on people of all political stripes. My environmentalist friends usually admit that they take Global Warming on faith (as I do). And conservatives usually agree that less pollution is a good thing. Both Dirk and his hippie nemeses want the same thing: clean water, fresh air, responsible companies, independence from oil, and abundant life. Even guys who hate tree-huggers aren’t averse to trees.
Week after week, I meet a new Dirk and discuss the future of the planet. Once we put aside the ethereal topic of Global Warming, we agree on concrete solutions: don’t litter, stop poisoning water, clean up toxic dumps, and foster alternative energy. Sure, Dirk would rather rely on smart CEO’s than government watchdogs, but at least we’ve agreed on the same problem, and we would both like to see it fixed.
I basically believe in global warming—the way that agnostics basically believe in a higher power—but I’m being honest with Dirk: I don’t think global warming should be the Earth’s most pressing concern. Rising temperatures are catastrophic, but they’re not our core problem; our core problem is that more than seven billion people live here, and half of them are hungry or starving. The problem is that our resources are insanely mismanaged, or else simply wasted. The problem—if there even needs to be another problem—is that we are all competing for money, energy, and power, and when I make a dollar, you lose a dollar. When my company thrives, yours goes bankrupt. When my country wins the war, yours is bombed to shit. And at any moment, some crazy tyrant could just blow up the world with nuclear weapons, in a matter of hours, just for fun. That’s the core problem.
Dirk and I have this one belief in common: If global warming exists, we humans will gradually adjust our lifestyles. It’ll be awful and unhealthy, but the Earth can adapt. Yet, until the global population plateaus and declines, our carbon footprint is no worse than the nuclear waste, eradicated species, and decimated forests that are already trashing our planet.
I consider myself an environmentalist, no matter how much Dirk scoffs. But the movement has its problems. In decades past, environmentalists had clear, pragmatic problems: DDT caused birth defects, and run-off ruined water supplies. Dumping mercury in the ocean poisoned fish, and it also poisoned the people who eat fish. But most people don’t care. Unless the disaster hurts your health or your pocketbook, most people shrug, or even get hostile. The only reason the environmental movement is popular now is because gas hit $6 a gallon. Period.
You don’t win converts by shouting at naysayers. Environmentalists need to understand their antagonists and appeal to their interests. Libertarians might love solar energy because they would never have to pay an electric bill—they could literally live off the grid. Green technology promises R&D investments (and profits) that Neo-cons can only dream of. These people probably don’t care about Venice or New Orleans getting swallowed by the sea, but if we can just convince them that recycling will help “beat terrorism”—since it was recycling that enabled us to win World War II—they might change their tune.
The more we argue for global warming, the more conservatives will hate the idea.
We will stay polarized as the actual poles keep melting.
Image by Cherrylynx/ flickr