Denier, Doubter, Believer, Advocate: Charting a New Path Forward on Climate Solutions in America
Americans agree that we disagree about climate change. It’s a minefield of political, technical, economic, and social conflict. We prefer not to talk about it. The implications are uncomfortable, and there’s a better chance for argument than helpful discussion. In fact, climate change is now the most divisive issue in America, more than abortion or gun control. Better to keep your head down and avoid it than actually try to address it. It’s just too bad that ignoring the issue does not make it go away.
The profound conflict surrounding climate change arose just over the past decade. It’s become a pitched battle between conservatives and progressives, so noisy and dangerous that most of the rest of us choose to stand to the side. We must and eventually will come together to face the realities of unprecedented droughts, floods, temperature and sea level increases, and other impacts of global warming now happening all around us. The questions are when, how, and might it already be too late?
So where are Americans on climate change?
New polls come out weekly. Some say it’s a top priority, some say we just don’t care. Some Americans think it’s an existential crisis. Others think global warming is just a natural cycle. Whatever you believe, you can find organizations, politicians, and publications to back you up. We have a societal stalemate on the issue that’s preventing us from moving forward.
Resolving our climate confusion starts with understanding people, not science. Americans fall into one of only four buckets on climate change: denial, doubt, belief, or advocacy.
Climate deniers say the planet is not warming. If it is, it is not caused by humans, and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. Deniers are getting backed into the “not human-caused” corner by the obvious realities of climate impacts and climate solutions all around them. Yet, as their arguments fall, their resolve does not weaken because it’s not grounded in climate change itself. Climate deniers’ beliefs are grounded in political, economic, or faith values.
Political deniers see everything, including climate change and democracy itself, through a lens of freedom glistening with prosperity. All the solutions to global warming involve more government, more taxes, and more regulations, the archenemies of libertarians and true conservatives. They believe that the left-wing conspiracy in America is actually using climate change as wedge issue to further their broader liberal agenda. Hence, the deniers are led by the steadfast right echelons of the Republican Party.
Economic deniers are invested in climate change. Some say they are destroying the planet for corporate and personal profit. They can’t hide fossil fuel extraction and burning, so they’re left with only the option to deny that it is a problem. The poster children for economic deniers are the Koch Brothers – people not to be trifled with. They view dealing with the consequences of carbon pollution as less damaging to society across the spectrum of values than stopping that pollution. Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMoble, acknowledges that the planet is warming and there will be impacts, but that we face an engineering challenge and we will adapt.
Faith deniers await tribulation and expect the associated calamities. 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ definitely (23%) or probably (18%) will have returned to earth by the year 2050. Faith deniers believe the biblical prophecies, and may or may not accept our role in causing climate change. It doesn’t matter because global warming is simply our destiny.
These three groups – political, economic, and faith deniers – are keeping America and the world from successfully addressing climate change. While based on different values and beliefs, their views and activities to stop progress on global warming are mutually reinforcing. Economic deniers fund political deniers who prey on faith deniers. Some of these folks are truly mercenary, but most simply create the myths that support their own self-serving version of reality.
Climate Solutions Advocates
At the other end of the spectrum are the climate solutions advocates. This comprises environmental organizations, people like Al Gore and Bill McKibben, emerging trade associations like the American Wind Energy Association and their members, and many Democratic politicians. They seek regulations to cut pollution, incentives for individuals and companies that engage in those activities, and taxes or fees on carbon pollution.
Like deniers, advocates base their work to stop climate change in other values: social justice, human health, national security, economic justice, protecting nature, economic prosperity, and of course human survival. Climate solutions advocates say they have science and reality on their side, which is evidentially true. Deniers often point out that these advocates profit directly or indirectly from their work, which is also true.
The deniers and the environmentalists are not going to come together and come up with an effective plan to save us from global warming. The two groups have competing values, distrust each other, talk past and maybe even hate each other. They both have significant power and are willing to fight aggressively and indefinitely to achieve their ends. In the meantime, it’s the planet and the rest of us that will suffer. Fortunately, only about 25% of us are deniers or advocates. The rest of us are either doubters or believers in climate change, sitting on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, we’re spending billions of dollars on protecting New York, Norwalk, Miami, New Orleans and other communities from rising sea levels. As I write this, two million acres of America are burning. Most of the southwest has shifted permanently from occasional to unprecedented drought. And warmer seas have NOAA warning us of further unprecedented flooding from El Niño. Whether or not we talk about it, the climate is changing and we need to do something about it.
Doubters and Believers
Doubters are confused about climate change. On one hand, they understand at that the U.S. Department of Defense, Exxon/Mobil, Shell, Pope Francis, NASA, NOAA, Stanford, and the United Nations are not collectively being duped by some scientists or engaged in a plot to destroy freedoms in America. On the other, they quite rationally don’t quite get why Fox News, all the viable Republican presidential candidates, the Wall Street Journal, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would sow doubt about global warming if it’s such an important issue and if the science were actually settled. Doubters typically cite a few denial talking points, keep their heads down, and move forward with the rest of their lives.
Believers understand global warming and the implications, but are mostly paralyzed by inaction. They get their news from any source other than a conservative blog or a Murdoch news agency. They know that the climate is changing, and get the logical connections between floods and droughts and climate change. But what can they do? They might be getting more efficient cars, recycling, or doing their part quietly, but they usually take public action on issues through their trusted local church, their schools, businesses, and communities. These entities are mostly standing on the sidelines of global warming too, so there’s no point of engagement.
Solutions, Solutions, Solutions
The first thing to recognize here is that there are solutions now for all parts of the global warming puzzle that didn’t exist even five years ago. New utility-scale solar and wind now dominate fossil fuel and nuclear power combined, because they just cost less. Hundreds of universities, companies, and communities across the globe are on a path to 100% renewables. Entire countries and even the European continent are on track to reduce their carbon intensity by 90% or more in just 35 years. Markets for renewable energy equipment are booming, while fossil fuel production languishes. There are more people employed in America working in the renewable energy business than there are in coal. California is already generating over 5% of its electricity from solar PV. The only things that are holding back even more progress are anti-competitive, legacy, carbon-based industries and their supporters.
The second thing to realize is that you can do much more than you might have thought about global warming. Conventional wisdom is that you’re just one person, one family, and you can’t have an impact on the issue. The truth is exactly the opposite. Your wise energy use, the products you use, your voice and views on the issue shared with family, colleagues, and community, and your vote are all powerful. Whether you’re at church, at work, at school, at your local health facility, or in your local community, you can find resources to help explain climate change, and help people and organizations take action.
Information and Action for Doubters and Believers
So, if you’re a climate change doubter, go to any mainstream news organization that is not owned by Rupert Murdoch (he owns the Wall Street Journal and FOX News) and check out what they say about climate change. ClearPath Foundation, a conservative Republican group, has a particularly rich set of information and articles on climate change. You can also go to any college or university in America, the American Public Health Association, or the institutions mentioned above (U.S. Department of Defense, Exxon/Mobil, Shell, Pope Francis, NASA, NOAA, Stanford, and the United Nations) for more information. Find somebody you trust, and get your information from them. Once you do, you’ll move toward being a believer.
If you’re a believer, now’s the time to empower yourself and speak up a bit. You can get more information and resources through the links in the paragraph just above. More research on what Americans think and value about climate change, and various communications guides can be found on the ecoAmerica website. The trick here is to do what’s comfortable for you, but to start talking and taking visible actions now. If you want to step it up a bit, consider joining the Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, or the National Wildlife Federation. And if you want to go even further, dedicated environmental/climate groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund can provide you with lots of resources and support. In any case, it’s time to move toward becoming an advocate.
If You’re a Denier or an Advocate, Consider This
Climate deniers, the bad news is that you are running out of room to backtrack on the issue anymore. The good news is, you can find solutions that align with your values, and the sooner you do, the better. The classic solution to climate change is a market-based mechanism called Cap-and-Trade that rewards innovation and wise energy use. Conservatives and libertarian groups like the Niskanen Center, the Hoover Institution, and the R-Street Institute need to keep refining and promoting their own climate solutions that support rather than conflict with their values.
Climate solutions advocates, you need to expand your base, not just activate it. This means reaching out to other groups through shared values. It’s hard to go from just beginning to understand an issue to fighting a dirty coal plant, so hold off on the hard-core stuff. A thoughtful approach to mainstream America can help you build support for climate solutions, and for your organization.