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Meeting Outrage Skillfully

September 11, 2019

My kids once had to have their own sheriff at elementary school to ensure their protection from anti-oil and gas activists. So, I know deeply and personally how threatening the fury of climate activism feels to oil and gas workers and those who love us. For several years I have declared myself “allergic to activism” because I have such a strong emotional response to any form of protest, even those that align with my beliefs and values. It’s time for me to get over it, and I’d like to invite you to join me.

Both of these things are true:

  • Climate activism has become a catch-all for left-leaning political identity and priorities. You can’t have a conversation about groceries, education, or health care without it sneaking in.
  • This generic infusion of climate into everything masks a deeper current of outrage along the political spectrum that itself overlies a wide range of fears, from economic insecurity to physical safety.

The problem:

We figured out a little while ago that our energy and environmental conversations aren’t really about the facts as we know them; they are driven by our values and identity. The more I work at the interface of this conflict, I have come to increasingly understand that climate is so pervasive in conversation because it has become a proxy for all things scary. Those fears of climate change become fear of:

  • Severe weather events
  • Rising tides
  • Mass migrations
  • Agricultural failure

As well as those deeper, outsized, identity based fears: a world controlled by technology instead of human beings and a political system dominated by big, evil corporations.

And so on. And meanwhile the equal and opposite fears of addressing climate become fear of:

  • Massive government overreach
  • Economic insecurity
  • Energy shortages
  • Worsening and extending poverty

And these climate-response fears trigger deep identity-driven terror about loss of relevance, influence, and control of the world as we know it.

This summary of fears is such a gross oversimplification that you can flip back and forth a number of those bullets between perspectives. Which brings me to the heart, the figurative beating heart of this post, which is that our climate conversation is being fueled by outrage, which is being fed by fear.

And fear deserves empathy and insight. Graciousness. Kindness.

It matters because:

We oil and gas supporters are in a difficult position, navigating a paradox of beliefs about energy and the environment. It is all pervasive and we cannot ignore the necessity of engaging, as individuals and as companies.

The critical mistakes companies are making:

Shouting “But, but, but…!!!”

My own head is atwitter with all the reasons we shouldn’t approach climate outrage with a skillful, gentle touch. “They are threatening our livelihood! Our way of life! Our freedom!” Which, incidentally, sum up a number of my own deep fears triggered by the climate debate.

Seize the day. You want to change some minds? You interested in having a realistic and pragmatic conversation about energy and the environment? We need to get, to really understand, the fear and outrage fueling our debates. 

  • Stop and listen. I begrudgingly follow my own advice and consume a diverse diet of news, podcasts, and books. My instinct when I encounter climate outrage is to abort the mission! I am now challenging myself to ask, What is motivating this person? What do they believe? What is scaring them?
  • Everyone believes they are on the side of right. It’s humbling to look at outrage and ask, What if they are right? It begs the questions, What could I be getting wrong? We’re looking to create new pathways for conversation in our own hearts.
  • Add gentle to your approach. This essay’s recommendations are waaaaaaaaayyyyy tougher than “conduct a risk assessment.” (Doesn’t it want to make you go conduct a risk assessment?!) Ask yourself, What does a skillful and gentle approach look like? Both to yourself, and to the outraged.

I know it feels like they should start first. Aren’t climate hawks from the tribe of peace and love?

The truth is, the energy industry and those of us who work in it and support are enormously powerful – and with great power comes great responsibility. The gentleness must start with us.

I got a little emotionally wonky here – hit reply and let me know what you think about that. Does it resonate? Trigger an allergic reaction in you?

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