How to clear the gridlock on climate change

Keith Gaby

Image by Steve Snodgrass/Flickr

Most of us, in dealing with opposition from a spouse or a child, have the tendency to try one more analogy, restate our position using different words, or just say it louder. All those behaviors are based on the belief that the other person just doesn’t understand what we’re saying. If we could only make our position clear, he or she would embrace it.

Unfortunately, a lot of political dialogue follows this path, too. We can’t believe the other side doesn’t get it – on gun control or health care or national security. We think of new phrasing, print up data charts or find new spokesmen to deliver our message. We rarely consider the possibility that they understand what we’re saying, but that their perspective generates a different logical conclusion.

This mental block has been a serious problem when it comes to the climate change debate over solutions. Environmentalists, seeing the enormity and urgency of the problem, propose bold action. Conservatives, who believe well-intentioned government policies often have bad unintended consequences, resist that action.

Environmentalists remind everyone of the danger we face – with photos of melting glaciers, video of stronger storms and graphs of rising pollution – and hope the message will finally hit home. Conservatives point to government programs they believe have set the nation on the wrong course, and resist the effort to implement new ones.

That’s where we’re stuck right now. And to get unstuck, I think, will require a change in tone from both sides. As I said in a previous post, it just doesn’t make sense to write off a hundred million of your fellow Americans as fools for disagreeing with you.

Environmentalists must continue to show the public the dangers we face from loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and do it in as vivid and compelling a way as possible. Conversely, conservatives who believe some government programs can be harmful to the ends they seek to achieve should continue to make their case – outlining smarter ways to address issues.

But both sides should do it with an understanding that most of those who disagree with them are not dumb or evil. And we should all be willing to accept those facts that are well established. For instance, progressives should accept that because a problem needs solving it doesn’t mean that every proposed solution is a good one. At the same time, conservatives who have an inclination to reject what they consider “hysteria” and prefer to be guided by data should follow that data where it leads. If the vast majority of respected scientists and major scientific organizations have agreed on global warming causes and found greenhouse gas pollution is causing dangerous changes to our world, that should be stipulated in the discussion of solutions.

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency

None of this is meant to suggest that everyone will be convinced by a civil, balanced discussion. Or that the dysfunction in this national conversation can be equally blamed on both sides. In previous climate change debates there have been loud, well-funded and highly irresponsible voices that deliberately sought to obscure the fact that man-made climate change is real. Interest groups and talking heads who call climate change a “hoax” are either badly misinformed or deliberately misleading, and they will never accept facts that contradict their political goals.

But there are many thoughtful people who have been skeptical but are willing to base their views on the evidence. And opening a conversation with them, in a respectful way, will only increase the chances that we can address this problem in time to avert the worst impacts of climate change. There is at least some evidence that our efforts are working in the population at large. In 2009, only 35 percent of Republicans believed that climate change was real; today the number is 48 percent. And ultimately, if we win over their constituents the politicians will follow. 

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