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TIRED OF THE CLIMATE WARS? ME TOO.

January 15, 2016

This post originally appeared at Scientific American.

I spend my time uncomfortably among groups of people that are either palpably disgusted by the climate change debate or completely enthralled by the movement underway. I fall into neither camp, but love people in both. Which has made me a student of the debate and a seeker of truth.

Don’t worry, the truth seeking in this case is not an analysis of the science. I do work on the science related to climate change, but that territory is well trod. This is about some underlying motivations on both sides of the policy debate.

The Paris talks really seemed to open a new chapter in the climate change debate. Perhaps it is a new chapter of progress, perhaps of grandstanding, but regardless, I believe history will judge it a turning point in the volume and scale of the debate, if not of action. For that, it’s too early to tell.

Both beauty and ugliness came out of the Paris talks, which inspired the equivalent in opponents of climate action. iThis is what interests me, especially because the tension also creates the possibility for new views  that could perhaps be more productive and interesting.

At its best, the climate change movement (post-Paris, no one can deny there is a global movement) is a call to higher action for the greater good. If opponents can set aside cynicism and doubt for a moment, it’s really a beautiful thing. There probably isn’t a person who wouldn’t want to ascribe to the higher values that can be attributed to the movement in its purest form:

  • Collective good
  • Global interconnection
  • Care for the most vulnerable among us
  • Stewardship of our resources and each other

If it weren’t packaged in the most contentious political hot potato of the environmental moment, these goals could be inspiring and provide a broad rallying cry.

Those who oppose climate action, in my experience, do not do so because they are selfish and evil. They do so because the climate change movement also has a shadow side, which is inevitable in any mass movement, spiritual, political, or otherwise. More on that in a moment.

The best that the opposition has to offer includes these same motivators, seen through a different lens:

  • Collective good: economic development must take priority over environmental goals (because of the hierarchy of needs)
  • Global interconnection: wealthy economies cannot dictate limits to developing economies when they’ve already grown without these same imposed limits
  • Care for the most vulnerable among us: prioritizing energy access is more important the environmental goals because it allows people to care for themselves
  • Stewardship of our resources and each other: shared responsibility for minimizing footprint is important

The opposition also has a shadow side.

Any massive movement with a higher call and values is going to be co-opted for individual and group agendas. Political parties, religions, civic movements, governments may all begin with a noble set of values, to find themselves enmeshed in battles from epic to petty.

Unfortunately the climate debate has taken the worst of those shadow sides, and caricatured each other on a grand scale. I have experienced the truth of these shadow sides, both of them.

Climate Change shadow:

  • Religious-like ferocity that the “science is decided”
  • Intolerance for questioning, dissension
  • Vilifying fossil fuels, technological progress, growth of humanity and the associated companies, governments, and people
  • Playing the victim of corporate greed, fossil fuel companies, and the political machine
  • Prioritization of addressing climate change over all other global crises (ie war, poverty)

Opposition shadow:

  • Religious-like ferocity that the “science is bullshit”
  • Unwillingness to entertain any discussion of risk, mitigation, or options
  • Vilifying environmental activists as a powerful conspiracy of snake-oil salesmen
  • Playing the victim of the government, the UN, activists, and an uneducated public
  • Prioritizing free markets and/or economic development without regard for risks

So what’s a thoughtful human to do?

  1. Understand the passion. It’s always a good idea to assume individuals and groups have good intentions. In each person’s narrative, they are on the good side, fighting for what’s right. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are smart, savvy, and well intentioned. Believing in the good intentions of the passionate warriors will dispel some of the heat allowing us to navigate onto middle ground.
  2. Cultivate dispassion. There’s plenty of passion in the debate, and it’s not helping. I used to think we needed more passion in the middle, and for compromise, but at the moment I think we need to cultivate dispassion. We need to be clear eyed about the dangers, the opportunities, the players, and the manipulators in this debate. We need to see the good intentions and the shadow realities. In practice, this means reading news stories with both an open mind and a critical eye to allow us to gather information and reserve judgement.
  3. Stop judging. Villains and victims aren’t going to constructively help in this debate. It’s a cheap escape hatch to blame a fuel, a company, or even the government for what you don’t like. There’s a situation, there is information, and there are options. We don’t have to agree, but we don’t have to continue vilifying each other either. Next time you notice a “they” generalization, such as “they are trying to put us out of business…” or “they are protecting their interests…” just stop.
  4. Gather information. There is perpetually new scientific information, emerging technological resources, and smart policy possibilities. You don’t have to know everything, but you can grow your understanding. Reading the arguments and opinions of both sides allows us to cultivate an appreciation for the complexity and subtlety of the climate issues and the vast array of policy implications. With a better feel for the density of the topic, we can participate in a more meaningful dialogue.
  5. Evolve your thinking. Which is a fancy way of saying, keep changing your mind. When did changing your mind become a sign of weakness? In fact, both intellectual curiosity and the scientific process are about gathering information and evolving one’s thinking. Over the past five years, I have been repeatedly surprised at the ferocity of my own opinions about climate change, more aligned with my politics that with my knowledge of the science or understanding of the policy implications. Maintaining an open mind requires conscious vigilance.
  6. Face hypocrisy. We all want someone else to “do something”, but in reality, we are all participants in this, and we are in it together. Most of us are procreating, consuming goods, and generally contributing to the problem. Let’s stop acting like someone else either caused the world’s problems, or tricked us into causing them. Seeing our own lives and contributions to populations, consumption, and pollution with clarity allows us to seek solutions that are more engaging to others and realistic for implementation.
  7. Answer the call. We all feel the tug to be a part of something noble. We can each answer the call in our own way to participate in the improvement of the world. Not everyone feels the call to address climate change, and yet there’s plenty of work to be done cultivating peace, raising prosperity, and caring for others from our own community to around the world. Whether you are moved to save the world, save humanity, or raise your family, success is not going to be fueled by anger, hatred, or judgement. It’s going to be fueled by optimism, creativity, and love.

Let’s get to it.

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