As a scientist studying issues related to climate change, I have had my share of futile conversation, arguments, and debates with climate deniers. It happens, perhaps too frequently. I recently had one of these conversations with a well-educated, young engineer during a cross-country flight. Said engineer was not so sure that the human impact on the changing climate is as dramatic as scientists are saying. He defended his stance with arguments related to super volcanoes and just a bit of skepticism. I realized after a few minutes of teasing apart the reasons why his arguments were perhaps invalid and using the typical climate scientists arguments about correlation between human industry and the slope of temperature increase, that I was not going to change his mind. He was still going to be on the fence about it all. However, I quickly discovered his obsession with efficiency and realized we could have a productive conversation relating to climate, alternative energy, hybrids, and technology. We ended up chatting the entire flight about everything from the amount of fuel it takes for a jet to make the trip we were on, to improving efficiency of planes and jet engines (he was an aeronautical engineer), to tidal energy and offshore wind. Maybe he was on the fence and we certainly had different viewpoints on climate change and the dangers that face our generation, but we still managed to have a 3-hour long productive conversation on making the world a better place. By the end of it, we were in agreement that the worst thing that can happen as a result of climate conscious change is more renewable and sustainable energy and a cleaner (or at least less dirty) planet for the future.
This flight occurred about a week ago. I wanted to blog about my interaction but I couldn’t figure out how to make a full post about it until I saw this article on i09 today. The article is quite short and is essentially just a series of comments from readers regarding the way environmentalists make arguments. A reader argues that if environmentalists want to actually change minds and have productive dialogue, they must tailor their argument to the audience. What good is a politician doing if he/she sits in front of a group of oil barons and bludgeons them with hard facts and sad truths about climate change. The audience is going to discredit the speaker immediately. They will tune out or attack the views of the environmentalist and everything will become an argument instead of a dialogue. How productive is that? Yeah… no very. So, what can be done?
The i09 reader and I had a similar idea (one that is put into practice daily by many environmentalists): instead of focusing on climate change and the impending dangers related to it, start discussing green energy, cleaner air, clean water, lower bills, sustainable living, impacts on family, improving the lives of the next generations, etc… These are more tangible and close to home for all people. If you give a climate-denier a choice: “vote for laws that limit your freedoms in order to slow climate change”, or “vote for laws that will make drinking water (air quality, etc…) safe for your children”, which one are they more likely to go for?
Now, we all may already understand this concept. After all, “tailor your an argument to the audience” is very common advice. But, I suspect many scientists, communicators, and policy makers struggle with the idea of leaving behind the climate change argument. We see inherent problems in the system and potential for immediate danger and have a hard time shying away from pointing that out. More than that, we see the underlying cause of problems such as unclean air and water, and that is the worldwide climate systems are changing, and humans are the major cause of this change. It is hard to justify trying to treat the symptoms instead of the disease, so I can understand why so many people steadfastly champion climate change alarmist views. I do it myself. I want people to know, I want people to understand the facts. To me it is not about believing or not believing, as the facts are the facts whether people choose to accept them or not. As NDT says:
In light of this, perhaps we need to adjust our strategies here. Play to the audience in question and attempt to find common ground instead of trying to win the argument. Making positive change requires the participation of a majority of people, not just half of them. As I’ve said many times, this should not be a political debate. If it were possible to have this issue transcend party lines that would be great. I am confident that it will eventually happen, but trying new approaches can only help.
As always, comments are welcome. Happy to hear different perspectives.