#09: Talking about climate change: Necessary, yet so uncomfortable
Climate change is a problem that affects every last one of us. It is a real looming threat and requires urgent action by as many people as possible. Although climate change is a known problem, too many people are still ignoring it, refuse to act or simply shrug it off. It seems like a majority of people do acknowledge the reality of it and agree that "something needs to be done". But this does not mean that they are willing to actually do something. Which brings us to today's (literal) talking point: We need to talk about climate change. This is necessary to get more people to understand its urgency and thus getting them to act like the urgency demands. Yet, - I don't know about you, but - I often find it painfully uncomfortable to talk about it with others. Here, I want to analyse why that is.
Well, first of all - even though climate change is a very complex topic with loads of very diverse scientific sub categories, nearly everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter. Most often, these opinions are anchored so deeply that people defend their stance on the topic as if they themselves are experts on the underlying science. Very often, people have one or two go-to-arguments that exemplify why they are a hundred percent sure that their opinion is correct (e.g. "climate changed before humans were around", "Studies say it's solar activities", "The science is not settled" etc). And since their conviction is rooted so deeply, people tend to get emotional over the topic. For me personally, it is no fun to argue about a scientific topic with a person that is overly emotional. And pretty often I find myself surprised, who among my friends, family, and casual acquaintances are so convinced of their opinion regarding climate change that they are willing to pick a verbal fight over it - although their stance very often solely relies on one of their errant go-to-arguments or on anecdotal "evidence" ("I go swimming in the Netherlands every year - no sea level rise whatsoever").
Why is climate change such a loaded topic?
This observation raises the question why people get so emotional about the topic. I mean, climate change is dangerous and I would understand people becoming scared or worried very much... but surprisingly the people that are most emotional are those that either reject climate change or carry the opinion "I believe that climate change is real and we should do something about it, but...". Followed by the "but" are usually attacks on climate policies or ad hominems on politicians and activists. And this "but" also keeps justifying that although they believe in the problem of climate change, they are not willing to allow uncomfortable measures and policies to be introduced to counteract the problem. Because these policies might intrude their way of living and thinking, they sound expensive, are over-the-top, or at least one would assume that they are. Introducing climate policies - such as a carbon tax - is an important but also controversial instrument; usually they are attacked by many political parties and politicians except for the Green ones. The science of climate change may be scientific, objective, and apolitical - but introducing climate policies is a very political matter.
Chances are that your opinion on the reality and especially urgency of climate change is defined by your political affiliation. So if someone starts talking about climate change with you, you usually respond with the answers that you usually hear by the politicians you endorse (please never forget that these politicians have agendas and that they are meeting with lobbyists on a regular basis). This means that if someone challenges you on these opinions, then they basically question your political stance, and thus - more or less - your world view. This is of course not intended. Maybe the person really just wants to talk about climate science. But still, it is not a nice feeling to have your world view put in question... and it justifies getting emotional about it. But that cannot be the only reason as to why talking about climate change is so controversial and difficult.
The most recent years have brought climate change to the front pages of most newspapers and media outlets. The reason are youth movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future, who are trying to shed spotlight on an important topic. While the main message of these movements is that politicians need to listen to the scientists in order to counteract climate change, their message is often reduced or distorted to blaming, shaming, and pointing fingers on politicians and previous generations for their inaction in general. I have met many elderly individuals feeling deeply offended and put to shame by Greta Thunberg and affiliates. Nobody likes to be put to shame - especially since most people really didn't know about the threat of climate change some 20 or 30 years ago. The many ambiguous feelings people feel towards Fridays For Future are the topic of a recent standalone blog post. And do not forget to combine these reactions with the implications of the actual message: We have messed up our earth climate and this is a very dangerous situation. It may mess up the life of your kids and grand-kids and it is important that we act in a way that your political affiliation maybe rejects whole-heartedly. Now, that I have written all these thoughts out and read them back to myself... I do not wonder anymore that people get emotional when it comes to the topic of climate change.
There is not a singular solution to climate change - and each proposal has flaws
I do strongly believe that these talking points are the main reasons for people getting emotional on the topic. And it is important to understand that, because if we do not understand what drives them, we will not be able to communicate with them efficiently. What they are choosing, probably unknowingly, are excuses instead of actions. And excuses are abundant. They are fed by political parties, conservative think tanks, the fossil fuel lobby... but most of all by a combination of these three. Many of the disinformation spread by them are hardly concealed misguidances or lies. Others are of a much more sophisticated nature because they prosper from the real existing uncertainties about climate policies. To explain this, we need to focus on the fact that the problem of climate change does (realistically) not have one singular solution to fix it. Most experts are divided in putting their money on certain actions, regulations, and technologies to halt climate change and combat its consequences. Usually, it can be agreed on that rather a set of different solutions may be the most sensible way to go:
The combination of a carbon tax, with a shift from fossil fuels to a mixture of renewable energies (solar, wind, water) or even nuclear energy. Reducing emissions by supporting electric automobiles and upgrading the amount of charging stations. Investing in geo-engineering solutions like carbon sequestering or aerosols that block the sunlight. You will not be surprised that each of these solutions and technologies has their flaws and none of them can stand for their own. Renewable energies, for example, are hard to store and distribute to the energy network efficiently, e-vehicles have batteries that may be hard to discard or they are carbon-intensive in production or there are not enough charging stations. Also, there is no geo-engineering solution that is in a state that it can help soon and world wide. Fusion power is too slow in production to help us anytime soon... and I'm not even touching the nuclear topic with a ten-foot-pole. This is just a very short overview of excuses why each of the proposed solutions may not be sufficient, suitable, or simply non actionable. Basically, you can find arguments against all of them if you search hard enough. And that is not surprising: Most of them are pretty new technologies and they need to be vetted and optimised. Some are farther in this process than others; e.g. solar power in comparison to fusion power. It is obvious that we need to discuss any technological shortcomings and fix them. But discussing them over decades whilst aggressively halting their development will only lose us more time.
It's no use shouting from the rooftops that there are not enough charging stations for a large-scale distribution of electric vehicles - invest in more charging stations and support the political parties that do. It's no use waiting for fusion power if we all know that it will be market-ready in a best case of two decades. It's no use waiting for geo-engineering solutions that are not even invented. Or complaining about the storage of solar and wind power. Invest in storage solutions and also in combinations of energy sources. If there is no sun, use wind. If there is neither sun nor wind, use hydrogen. If you need more power, use nuclear or even coal. As long as the former are being built on a large-scale while the latter are slowly being shut down, this can work very well. Even with the current and imperfect storage solutions we have. But why am I drifting away from the initial topic of this post? Because I want to show you that (i) there are enough excuses for everyone to delay climate action, and (ii) most of these excuses cannot withstand some basic logic and are exactly that: "excuses". For not having to act. For being able to keep everything as is.
How can we talk to someone who has enough excuse to not having to listen?
These excuses in combination with down-right disinformation campaigns by the fossil fuel lobby are soothing for most of us: Don't believe the hype of those climate doomists. Because it's much easier to believe the excuses and misinformation that are being circulated than to act. For many, it is easy to overlook that basically the only objective source of evaluation we have - science - is very much sure that climate change is real, humans are the main driving force, and we should definitely act asap to prevent climate catastrophe. Thus, climate action must be the main focus of our generation. And talking to friends and family about these problems is important, no matter how emotional or difficult it may become. Often you find yourself shouted down or repeatedly interrupted in the middle of a sentence, because the topic makes people boil. You will hear falsehoods, misconceptions, and lies that are circulated by politics, media, and lobbies. Rebutting all of them is near impossible - in a conversation it is entirely futile.
But although this may sound a bit hopeless, it is not. With a bit of exercise you will grow more confident in talking to others about climate change. Keep reading about the actual climate science from reliable sources and teach yourself to identify common techniques that are employed by science denialists. There are handy concepts, such as FLICC, that help to identify the most common rhetorical tactics by people denying science. Since it is completely impossible to rebut every piece of misinformation on the fly, it is much more efficient to identify the logical fallacies, anecdotal nature of evidence, or the fake experts that carry the rhetoric. It may help your conversation partner to understand that their thinking may be flawed and climate action could be worth a thought (or even a vote) after all.