Climate change educators and advocates need to have a thick skin:
“This silliness. HOAX!”
“If you truly believe that humans are the problem…then how could you bring children into this world to further damage the planet? I’m not asking you to run out and massacre small children, but why create new little earth-killing machines?”
“#epa GTFO power hungry sheep herders.”
“Basically, you are either foolish and believe the lies or you are part of the problem and are trying to scare the foolish into surrendering more power to government…I don’t know if you are actually a concerned citizen or a plant/shill for government takeover, but I’ll assume you have good intention[s].”
“What I’m saying is, I don’t think it is right to force others to do what they don’t wish, even if you are correct. And, unlike Moses, you probably didn’t get your global warming update from God directly.”
“The bottom line is that IF it actually becomes a real problem, THEN we can deal with it.”
This is just a small example of one conversation thread I had on Google+. The day that I post something on climate change mitigation, I end up with messages of hate and personal attacks. As unpleasant as this experience was, I became curious as to why the topic of climate change mitigation attracts more responses than adaptation. Why does mitigation evoke strong emotional responses from some people to the point of verbal abuse?
Dr. Bruce Hull, Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability, Board President of Model Forest Policy Program, was enlisted to help me better understand conversations with climate change skeptics. Here are the usual reasons for skepticism:
1. The biosphere is too complex and science too uncertain, so we should wait to act until we know for sure.
2. Human ingenuity will solve any problems if impacts of climate change become consequential, so we should wait to act until then.
3. Mitigation is impossible because it requires global collaboration among self-interested actors such as corporations and nation states, so we can’t solve the problem even if we wanted to.
4. Mitigation solutions require actions by governments, which are inefficient and corrupt, so we should not try.
5. China, India, and other nations are building many new coal-fired power plants, so mitigation by others won’t matter.
6. Climate scientists have made mistakes in the past, so climate science can’t be trusted.
How can a climate change educator have a conversation with a skeptic without feeling the need to kick and scream? Try your hardest to understand how the skeptic is framing the environment. “One of the major results in the cognitive and brain sciences is that we think in terms of typically unconscious structures called “frames”…[which include] semantic roles, relations between roles, and relations to other frames” (Lakoff 3).
How the skeptic frames the environment is a reflection of the skeptic’s values. The word “environment” evokes various emotions and imageries for different people. Its meaning differs from person to person. Usually, politics is not part of an individual’s environmental frame. By connecting politics with environment, the frame is being challenged. Hence, the provocation for heated conversations.
Most skeptics are anti-government, where “environmental regulation and government subsidies for sustainable energy, green technology, and green jobs are seen as government interference in the market, and hence immoral” (Lakoff 7). Most economists would scoff at this framework because regulations of markets are needed in order for the markets to function and serve the interests of the public. Ideally, regulations are put in place to help serve the public interest, to protect vulnerable communities from being bought out by business ventures that may destroy the local environment, and to protect natural resources for future generations.
From my observation, it’s not necessarily the topic of climate change that evokes anger from skeptics. Instead, it’s the topic of what should the proper role of the government be? For someone who is dissatisfied with how their nation is being governed, realizing that he/she does not live in a truly democratic country, and seeing scandals of politicians succumbing to corruption and vice much like non-politicians, I can understand why there is mistrust of all things government related. However, this mistrust can be blinding. There are individuals in the Environmental Protection Agency, US Forest Service, and other governmental agencies who truly care about the environment, the quality of air and water, and the security of the nation’s energy sources. These concerned citizens with the knowledge in climate science, economics, politics are conducting studies and coming out with plans to alleviate the problems that are posed by climate change. When engaging in conversations with a skeptic where the role of the government is the main reason for skepticism, this is the educator’s opportunity to find common ground with the skeptic. We all have our own opinions about governments and most of us share similar dissatisfactions on governmental actions, especially when it comes to the protection of individual rights. Upon finding commonalities, conversations tend to become less tense, allowing both parties to constructively talk about the cause and solutions of climate change.
Science has always been a changing field, which is fitting because our natural world is constantly changing. “Science is built on the premise of making mistakes and learning from them” (Hull). The idea of not acting until we definitely know that human activities are the cause for the rapidity of climate change is a gamble. How does one determine what is definite? How does one determine when we have enough information before taking actions? It boils down to personal experiences. In my case, I believe that climate change is affecting my health and livelihood, which motivates me to research and write about this controversial topic, as well as adapting my lifestyle with the knowledge of what kinds of risks climate change pose to myself and family. When climate change is viewed as a personal issue, actions are taken.
My experiences in engaging in conversations with skeptics on the topic of climate change mitigation are usually emotionally and mentally draining. Although conversations with skeptics may be an uphill battle for educators and advocates, it is necessary in order for there to be progress on the daunting subject of climate change.
Hull, Bruce. “Conversations with Climate Skeptics.” Constructing Sustainability. WordPress, 29 May 2014. Web. 22 July 2014. http://www.constructingsustainability.com/conversations-with-climate-skeptics.html
Lakoff, George. “Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment.” Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 4.1 (2010): 70-81.