The Politics of Climate Change
How we can have more productive conversations
By: Dylan Patrick
“You and all your climate terrorists can go to hell. You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. You haven’t lived long enough!”
“Oh, really? Well, thanks to your generation – and all the people who have ‘lived long enough’ – my generation won’t be able to!”
“You seriously think that after millions of years, some no-name kids can do anything about it?”
“What makes me think I can do anything about it? What choice do I have?”
That conversation on a warm fall evening wasn’t supposed to happen. With a steaming casserole spread out on their mahogany dining room table, the Rivenbarks expected it would be another pleasant family dinner in their Austin, Texas, household. It was always a time for everyone to slow down and enjoy one another’s company.
But that didn’t happen on this night – all because of the last hour of Alyssa Rivenbark’s day at school.
That particular day ended with a debate course. The topic was climate change, an explosive one that students weren’t used to dealing with.
Alyssa, a high school junior in Austin, was assigned to argue that the scientific research of climate experts was misconstrued. That there really wasn’t any actual proof of human impact on the environment – an idea that disgusted her.
Throughout her attempt to quickly unearth existing evidence to support that claim, she was frustrated because she couldn’t find any credible sources. And now she was expected to defend that awkward position in a few minutes.
A self-described believer, but not an expert on the extent to which humans cause climate change, Alyssa left the classroom with her eyes opened to what an overwhelming majority of global scientists had concluded.
But how, she wondered, would she ever be able to effectively counter the consensus of the scientific community: the planet’s surface temperature rising a degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, the five warmest recorded years all within the last decade, the loss of Antarctic ice tripling in the last 10 years, global sea levels rising eight inches in the past century.
How could she dance around the scientific data to convincingly defend the argument she’d been assigned?
In the end, the facts, realities, truths and data she found would not only lose her spot as a top debater but would also lose her spot at the dinner table a few hours later.
So, her father’s simple question: “How’d debate go?” quickly turned into an ugly screaming match between the climate change-believing daughter and her climate-denier father.
And, in the end, it wasted her mother’s delicious casserole.
The back-and-forth fireworks between father and daughter at the family kitchen table is hardly unique these days. In fact, it’s becoming an increasingly common occurrence at kitchen tables, classrooms, churches, sporting events, city council meetings, barrooms, grocery check-out lines and virtually every other place capable of holding two people close enough to talk.
Every day, more and more conversations are drowned out by the noise, the anger, the self-righteousness and the mounting inability to listen to opposing viewpoints.
Every day, more and more facts, figures and science are giving credence to thoughts, feelings and intractable opinions.
Every day, it inches closer and closer to becoming one of the most toxic and polarizing phrases in America’s lexicon: “Climate Change.”
Or is it, “Climate Crisis”?
Or is it, “Extreme Weather”?
Or is it, “Global Warming”?
Or is it, “Climate Variability”?
Or is it…
Today’s climate change debate is volatile and political in nature. With all sides increasingly retreating to their ideological silos, unable to escape their own echo chambers, some serious questions have emerged:
- Why is it that our nation, and our world, have become so focused on the language and syntax of what people want to label as facts?
- Why are people worried about what to generally call the fact that the 20 warmest years on record have all occurred in the past 22 years?
- Why are people concerned about whether to call it “climate fluctuations” or just “weather changes?”
- Why is it that what is arguably the most advanced civilization in history – capable of moon landings, polio vaccines and the internet – is so stuck on vernacular?
- Why are all sorts of people averse to hearing viewpoints different from theirs?
- How did we get here?
- And what can we do about it?
These are baffling questions for many. Count Austin Hutchinson among them. The 20-year-old Abilene Christian University communications major struggles to figure out how to convey the rapid pace of climate change to his boomer-generation grandparents, whom he loves.
“I just don’t understand the blinders they have on,” said Hutchinson, a red-blooded Republican. “I’m not sure if it’s they don’t understand what’s happening, or if they don’t want to understand what’s happening.”
And grandparents, like 73-year-old Barbara Allison, an Oklahoma City native, are wondering how they can get through to their millennial-age children and grandchildren that the earth is so expansive and old, it will find a way.
“The entire time humans have walked earth, it has experienced some sort of environmental and ecological evolution. That won’t stop because some young people find the natural cycle distressing,” said Allison, who loves her grandsons but doesn’t understand them.
So, what can be done to bridge these generational gaps and political divisions, to get to a place where we can more deeply understand each other?
Conversations are often the obvious starting point. But given the sensitive nature of the issue, is there a way to ensure an exchange of civil discourse?
Dan Mager of Psychology Today offers up a ready answer: start eliminating all swearing, name calling and finger wagging – far too common today.
As soon as they enter the conversation, he said, “The only thing other people hear is anger and attack.” At which point “they are likely to leave, shut down or attack as well.”
So, if these are the conversational roadblocks that need to be eliminated, then what are some options that could lead to more civil exchanges and fewer screaming matches?
The first step, according to Elaine Gast Fawcett of the National Center for Family Philanthropy, is to recognize the point of a civil conversation.
The purpose of civil conversations, Fawcett said, is to “build a better understanding” between the participants. It’s equally important to recognize that “participants don’t have to agree.” Rather, “what matters is the act of listening to other people and learning their perspective.”
As the CEO of Metropolitan Family Services of Illinois, Ric Estrada gets in on a lot of conversations.
“It’s when we listen and hear each other’s stories that we recognize common experiences. And on those commonalities, we can build communities,” said Estrada.
The notion that listening is a key component to generating civil discourse is a concept heartily endorsed by Jeffrey Stevens, Ph.D., of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
As a psychology professor, Stevens notes that when people converse with someone holding an opposing viewpoint, their tendency is to listen only to what most closely coincides with their own world view.
“Everyone should be aware of the notion of confirmation bias,” said Stevens. This is the scientific explanation for why people “tend to pay attention to and remember things that (they) already agree with.”
But, if people are most likely to listen only to what they want to hear, how can one person ever persuade another person to think about the issue in a different way?
It’s a good question – and Stevens has an answer for it.
“Take a deep breath,” he said, “and remember that the best conversations involve active listening.” That is, listening “to the other person without interrupting or trying to prove them wrong.”
When someone allows their emotions to take control of their mouth, any hope we had of persuading the other person, or in the rare instance, confronting the fact that we may be wrong, goes out the window, Stevens said.
Stevens conducts simulations in his classrooms that focus on exactly this issue. He makes his students interview somebody on a subject with which they vehemently disagree.
“They struggle to avoid arguing,” he said, “but when they do just listen, they walk away with better knowledge of the person’s viewpoint.”
If actively listening is a key to productive conversation, how can it be employed in a topic as divisive as climate change?
Ursula Kreitmair, Ph.D., a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has a ready answer: Actively listen, for sure, but don’t jam up your responses with a boatload of scientific complexities.
Kreitmair said there is one sure way to go about implementing the science into daily conversations: “Don’t.”
According to her, that’s one of the reasons conversations on such an important topic become tainted. And, too often, it ends up tainting the relationship as well.
“Don’t use the specifics when you’re talking to a denier or a skeptic – that will only shut them down and end the conversation,” she suggested.
“If they believe the premise is tainted, they will not be open to conclusions. Any attempts to persuade will only shut them down and end the conversation. Rather, work on building common connections,” she said.
Meanwhile, Charles Camosy, Ph.D., a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, offers another suggestion.
He strongly recommends “avoiding binary thinking” such as liberal/conservative or believer/denier.
Too often, he said, we try to debate issues and separate frames of thought into two categories. But, in reality, they “are almost always too complex to fit into simplistic categories.”
So, according to the experts, actively listening, avoiding swearing, name calling and finger wagging, taking a deep breath to calm potential nerves, not overloading the science into it, remembering the concept of confirmation bias and the downsides of binary thought are all critical to having more civil conversations.
These are the keys, they say, to convincing your grandma that recycling is good. The keys to convincing your daughter that the world is bigger than the sum of its parts. To convincing everyone that there is hope for whatever it is they believe in.
The desire to have conversations with those holding opposing views is age-old. But to generate an understanding with one another, to eliminate the chances of one party storming out of the room, mind untouched, the experts say it is critical to re-examine the way in which these conversations typically occur.
As experts suggest, not everyone can be well-versed in the science of the climate crisis, but they can actively listen, engage with others and build bridges in the process.
These bridges have improved the relationship between father and daughter, in fact.
“You know, Alyssa, I’m very proud to see you following your passions.”
“Thanks, Dad. It’s something I really believe in and something I need to do.”
“Do you think there’s a spot for me in there somewhere?”
“You want to join? Don’t you think we’re ‘climate-terrorists’?”
“Well, no, not so much anymore. Some of my buddies at work have opened my eyes a bit.”
“Really? How’d they pull that off? I’ve been trying for years.”
“Well, they didn’t treat me like the enemy. Or like I was a jackass for having a different view.”
“So glad to hear that, Dad.”
“Good. Now let’s not waste this casserole Mom made for us.”
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