The asymmetrical climate war

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The climate debate rages on in some circles that really count, such as the policy-making arena, and it doesn’t seem like the sides have learned much that would enable them to move debate. It’s an asymmetrical situation with one side spewing facts and seemingly getting nowhere while the other bats all arguments aside with simple but highly effective tactics that question the veracity of the other side’s arguments. It’s the same stale approach that the left and right have engaged in for many years. There’s no path forward on many issues because the sides often refuse to agree on a common starting point.

The climate debate is interesting for two reasons. First, most people believe that carbon pollution is changing the climate. Recent reporting from NASAcompiles evidence from a large swath of the scientific community attesting to the reality of climate change. That evidence is reaching the general public as polls now say that 70 percent of Americans believeclimate change is happening and 57 percent say it’s caused by humans. Still official policy looks the other way.

Second, and critically important, there isn’t a lot of time left to stave off the worst effects of climate change. A recent report from Yale Climate Connectionspredicts that we really only have 12 years left to begin acting. As their recent blog said,

For the record, I am not in that camp simply because I believe, based on data, that we can do a lot to remove carbon from the atmosphere and that an ultimate solution will have to include removal as well as drastic cuts in emissions. Most warnings I’ve seen only deal with limiting emissions which is like fighting the problem with one hand tied behind our backs.

Regardless, we have a problem because a sizeable but decidedly minority portion of the population ignores warnings and scientific data. What’s to be done?

Simply put, we, the people who see a crisis forming and who want to do something, are scaring the daylights out of those who want to drag their feet and preserve the old fossil fuel paradigm. Both sides are dug in at this point and one isn’t going to change unless the other goes first. Specifically, those who want to do something about climate change have to recalibrate their messaging.

People tend to dig in when they feel threatened and right now those who disbelieve climate change are concerned about their jobs, the price of gas, and their kids. We’re buying more SUVs than ever despite their efficiency ratings that are lower than cars. In 2018 Americans bought 17.3 million vehiclesand 48 percent were SUVs. That’s not the sign of a society that’s taking climate change seriously. So perhaps it’s time to change tactics.

New tactics

To push through the current stalemate, it’s first necessary to get everyone to calm down. The climate proponents have to find ways to reach the climate deniers so that they don’t turn off the message and dig in. For that we’ll need better data and first, a story based on emotion.

Emotion is the most powerful tool anyone has to affect other people and how they view us and the greater reality. One reason it’s so easy to ignore climate warnings is that they’re all future based. We’ll run out of oil in 50 years, we’ll kill off more species in 20 years, the air won’t be breathable then. All of that is true but it has little sway when compared to the need for a paycheck or the allure of a sleek new car.

But imagine a different discussion based on things like this:

These are still emotionally draining questions and likely to turn off many people. But they begin to remove the abstracts from the discussion, they begin to make it real especially when we involve future generations that we’re responsible for.

An even better approach is to avoid scaring people at all and to develop an emotional hook by painting a picture of a better future for everyone. Too many people today look at the future with fear and suspicion, yet American optimism has always placed great faith that tomorrow will be better than anything we’ve seen before.

Society is on edge today because there are more people on earth than ever before and we are all competing for the same limited resources. Consider this example. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act originally pledged $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System.

Today that system has a total of 46,876 miles of road. But in 1956 the US population was 168.9 million and today’s population is 327.2 million, nearly double the 1956 total, and continues to climb. Roads are a good surrogate for many other resources. They haven’t expanded as the population has with the result that we’re all competing for a smaller slice of the pie.

That’s not something most people know in the same way they know their bank balances, but we all have a gut feeling. The roads are crowded and it’s hard to get anywhere, housing prices continue to rise, driven by demand that increases organically with population, the roads are more congested as we’ve seen. Food prices are relatively stable but food production is also subsidized through the Department of Agriculture. It’s hard to find any resource that’s not under pressure from a rising population and that includes energy, food and water.

So imagine a climate discussion that skips the dire numbers (tell yourself you’ve won that battle but are in danger of losing the war). Instead, start with a positive vision of the future such as,

It can happen with a new energy paradigm based on renewables like geothermal, wind, and solar. Moreover, as fossil fuels continue to decline, it will be necessary for renewables to take on an increasing portion of the energy load. If we do this right we can do much more than swap one energy source for another; we can build a future that’s way different from today.

Last thoughts

Scaring people rarely convinces them of anything. The old aphorism, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” comes to mind.

Fixing climate change begins with selling a positive vision of the future. There are many people who were rightly impressed by Al Gore’s exposition of the problem in his book and documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” But we’ve been stuck in a cycle of diagnosing the problem for well over a decade, time that could have been used better. No sense in belaboring that point though.

The challenge and the opportunity today is no longer making a diagnosis, we’ve done that. It’s time to move on to prescribing solutions to the problems already diagnosed.

If we do our job, in the future climate will be a manageable issue and we’ll all have access to sufficient resources because huge amounts of renewable energy will be available to do the things we can only do in limited ways now. This includes making more fresh water for irrigating parched farmland, and even removing some carbon from the atmosphere. That’s the positive message the climate movement needs to adopt.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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