Climate Change, the Election, and a Few Brief Notes

Now that the election is over, and Obama finally got around to mentioning climate change in his victory speech – better late than never, although Ms. Wolverine’s nip on the heels would be well deserved – the environmental media is abuzz with speculation about whether or not the president will use his political momentum to exercise leadership on climate change. At Yale Environment360, William Becker writes about actions that Obama might take to begin the shift to a better future. Among the suggested strategies, Becker includes some interesting information on recent polls from the Yale climate change communication project suggesting that a majority of Americans accept anthropogenic climate change and would like to see action at the national and international levels.

If, for the remaining portion of the population, physics and Ms. Wolverine’s sharp teeth aren’t enough to convince of the magnitude of the issue, David Remnick’s eloquent piece in The New Yorker might do the trick. This compelling plea for action emphasizes some points that might appeal to the identity-based political leanings of climate-change deniers. First, the fact that the Pentagon sees climate change as a serious threat – this is an issue of national security. Second, the fact that 50,000 people died in the European heat wave of 2003, and that’s only one of a number of instances of human deaths resulting from severe weather events tied to a warming planet – action on climate change is a moral issue, an issue of the protection not just of cute animals and spectacular glacial scenery, but of human life. And third,  insurance companies estimate the annual cost of weather related disasters at $34 billion a year, although they will have to revise those estimates for 2012, since Hurricane Sandy has cost the state of New York alone $33 billion – climate change is an economic issue, an issue not only of the cost to vaguely defined ecosystem services, but of serious damage to private property and business. This sacred triumvirate of conservatism – security, the sanctity of human life, and economic prosperity – should be enough to convince anyone of the need to act. And for climate change action advocates, I wonder if it’s time to change our strategy from one of attempting to educate people about the science, to flat-out manipulating whatever values they respond to. I’m not above such strategies. Talk about god, morality, precious little babies dying of starvation, the need for a strong America and a strong military, the pressures climate change will place on the free market and the economy, as long as it gets stuff done.

In other, more specifically wolverine related news, here’s a short bit from Canada about the personal experiences of park employees with wolverines. It’s on the human interest side, but it’s another account of face-to-face encounters. Enjoy!

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5 thoughts on “Climate Change, the Election, and a Few Brief Notes

  1. While reading your last post I was somewhat disappointed because I got the feeling that you may think Republicans for the most part are sort of uneducated, dumb and hold to unrealistic views on the sanctity of human life and of an afterlife. If this is true I feel it is unfortunate because manipulating people and poking fun of their values in order to forward one’s own personal agenda is wrong. All of us on this planet have our own world view which has been formed and is being formed by specific life experiences. Something I learned from my ultra-religious conservative family a long time ago is that “people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” In no way whatsoever is climate change a political issue that one side is more privy to. So please do not help perpetuate this false notion by feeding into it. Those of us that are educated regarding the realities of climate change need to get off our high horse and get down in the dirt and get to work. Americans need to honestly get to know one another… Let me be clear, I am not a Republican or a Democrat. For myself, there is too much baggage attached to either of these parties for me to desire to claim one specifically. With this said, I did vote for Obama.

    • Hi Nate, thanks for openly sharing your thoughts. I’m sorry if you are offended by what I wrote, so let me just put it in the context of my own experiences – as you say, this is important in understanding the shaping of worldviews.

      First, I am not talking about all conservatives or all Republicans. I’m talking about climate change deniers, who tend to deny on two grounds: religion (“god will take care of us”), and/or economics (“changing to sustainable energy will ruin our economy.”) These issues are frequently mixed in with a number of other concerns that are secondary to the general environmental narrative, but big with conservatives – national security, for example. So let’s look at these in turn.

      There is a stark reality that a certain contingent of conservative, religious right-wingers do not accept science. I’m not talking about all religious people; I know (and was raised among) scientifically literate, socially liberal Christians whose circle of concern certainly includes the environment as well as other humans. In this case, however, I’m talking about the political religious right. I have some very conservative religious people in my own family, with whom I have been holding on-going discussions on the science/Christianity interface since I was twelve. Eventually it became clear to me that trying to convince my relatives of the reality of evolution, for example, wasn’t going to work if I kept talking about science and the scientific method, because of course they don’t accept the authority of science, in the same way that I don’t accept the authority of the bible. I would talk about Darwin and fossils; they would talk about Genesis, and the devil putting fossils in rocks to trick people. So we were essentially talking at cross-purposes.

      When it comes to climate change, the same thing is going on, and the major strategy of the advocacy movement is “let’s educate people about the science,” which I don’t think will work when you have this very essential difference in what people will accept as a source of authority. So while I do indeed have some serious issues with the hypocrisy of a claim to be all about the sanctity of human life while showing such blatant disregard for the future of humanity (and I believe that people should not be allowed a free pass on making claims like this), I’m not making fun of the impulse to protect life. I’m positing that it might be a better strategy, rather than harping on “the science,” to frame things in a way that appeals to values that these groups already hold.

      This past Earth Day, I attended a celebration here in Bozeman, and one of the speakers was a preacher from Chicago, who made a compelling case that climate change was a moral issue. I was moved listening to him, even though I’m an atheist. The bulk of the population, particularly the church-going population, will probably respond better to the powerful narrative of needing to save people than to a chart showing the spike in CO2 levels since the Industrial Revolution. This doesn’t mean that they’re stupid, it just means that they accept a different source of authority, that they organize information and ‘proof’ in a different way. Maybe it’s my background as a writer, but tailoring your narrative to the audience you want to engage is one of the cardinal rules of storytelling. The environmental movement has failed to do this, partially because we have our own very stringent sense of morality. I’m suggesting – and I think you are, too – that we start.

      If that came across as making fun, I’m sorry. I’m quite serious. To me this is simply a question of learning to speak a sort of values-based vernacular with whatever group you’re working with – likewise, in Mongolia I talk about science, but I also talk a lot about Buddhist values and the sacred landscape in Shamanic terms. Whether I believe these things or not, to me it’s a question of fluency in different modes of communication, in invoking different sources of authority.

      As a further contextualization, my father was in Navy for decades, and helped run the annual Naval War Games. They were gaming climate change scenarios in the 1990’s. I am not a fan of the military in general, but on the other hand they have a very straightforward mission, which is to protect the country, and they’ve recognized climate change as a threat for a very long time. Branches of the military are making an effort to engage in sustainable practices and environmental protection, partially because they understand these things as security issues. Most people in the environmental movement probably don’t like the military that much, but we need to give them more credit for what they have done in this field, and in doing so, we also need to emphasize to people that the military itself sees climate change as a national security issue. A lot of people respond to the idea of national security, even if they don’t respond to the idea of protecting cute animals. Again – speak the language, diversify the narrative.

      Finally, on the issue of economics, I come from a family of old school New England Republicans – fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and extremely well educated. Put your argument in terms of the monetary bottom line, and they respond. Climate change is an economic issue, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t talk about that angle, loudly and frequently.

      I don’t have any tests for being a fan of wolverines or for being part of the environmental movement – Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, Latinos, Mongolians, liberals, conservatives, hunters, vegetarians, snowmobilers, backcountry skiers, everyone is welcome – even though I am not going to agree with everyone’s views about certain issues. The environmental movement needs to make a concerted effort to engage with people who organize information and proof differently. You’re right about that. But the approach of ‘educating’ people won’t work – in the same way that my conservative Christian relatives will never convince me to adopt their beliefs, I’m never going to convince them to adopt a scientific outlook. So we’re either at a total impasse and we have to give up, or else we have to figure out how to communicate with people who have a different outlook. I feel a little guilty about this on one level, because it is, in some senses, manipulative to talk about god without believing in god. But if that’s the metaphor that works, I don’t think we should be so devout in sticking to scientific explanations alone. I also certainly do not think I should be the spokesperson for this – someone who does believe in god should be out there framing things in this way. But I wouldn’t mind instigating, and I don’t mind talking in those terms if I have to.

      I never mentioned anything about an afterlife, by the way. Death doesn’t worry me, although I know it worries a lot of other people, and they’re welcome to deal with it in whatever way they wish. There’s no evidence either way.

      • Rebecca, thank you for your response! It is beautiful, passionate, sincere and respectful.

        I personally agree with almost everything you said except for a couple of small things. First off I do believe in a supreme being and for me science has helped bring me to this conclusion. Second, I know that I could be wrong about so many things that I currently hold as truths and for this reason I expect that my world views will continue to evolve and shift throughout my life. So please do keep trying to convince me that I am wrong if you honestly believe that I am … just please keep doing so in a respectful and thoughtful manner.

        And last, you mentioned that there is no evidence of an afterlife. Perhaps there is no scientific evidence …perhaps there is. However, for me I put some trust in the spiritual emotions that evolution has helped develop within the human species over thousands and millions of years. There is so so so much that we just don’t have the answers to, that science at this point in time just can not even begin to explain. For this reason I do not doubt things just because I can not at this time see, hear, or touch them. Some things I simply believe in because they feel right to me. And one thing I can feel Rebecca is that you are an amazing person and you are doing so much good. Please keep helping us all come together on important issues like climate change, evolution, and science. I honestly applaud your efforts. I appreciate your friendship. Cheers!

      • Thanks Nate. I really do appreciate your willingness to tell me that you feel I’ve crossed a line, and to consider my response. I don’t think this blog is the place for me to get into a massive ontological discussion, but “no evidence either way” definitely doesn’t mean “evidence of non-existence,” and atheism doesn’t necessarily equate with a disavowal of spirituality, intuition, or acceptance of the existence of a world beyond our senses. But as you pointed out in your original comment, everyone has his or her own very personal experiences and history in developing an understanding of the world, and I think one of the most important things we can do for society is preserve the ability of every individual to fully explore that set of experiences, and to derive meaning from it, in freedom and, if they so choose, privacy.

        Of course, sharing one’s spiritual experiences is fine if one feels comfortable with it, but groups of people trying to convert others or dictate a religious/moral outlook make me incredibly anxious – whether those people are Christian, Muslim, or of any other faith, including New Age nature-based stuff. It’s funny, although I’ve had a number of formative, negative experiences with conservative Christians trying to intrude into this process, I’ve also had experiences with liberal left wing “animists” doing the same thing. It’s equally annoying no matter who does it. I just think we all have to make an effort to accept that not everyone is going to arrive at the same spiritual conclusions that we do, and we all have to scale back our impulses to try to force others to agree with us (particularly by using legislation.)

        So I just want to be clear – I am not trying to convince you that you are wrong. I think it must be comforting and peaceful to believe that there is a supreme being, and I kind of wish I could put things in those terms – but that is not the language that my own experiences have led to. Sometimes, however, I really do think that these are just differences in language and in how we describe the way that we love the world, and I don’t see the point in fighting over terminology, and especially not in sacrificing lives and resources and the spiritual autonomy of the individual just to prove that one particular set of words is “the truth.” So please don’t think I am trying to convince anyone that they have to agree with my own conclusions, or that I am trying to convert everyone to an atheistic scientific worldview. I’m not. Whatever I put out there, it’s just my view, and it’s more interesting to me when people have different views – as long as those views aren’t violent or destructive or abusive of other people’s rights or something.

        In any case, thanks for your words and thoughts. I enjoy the conversation and hearing your views, and of course I very much enjoy knowing that there are good people out there who care about wolverine conservation and, more broadly, the world. Take care up there in the North!

  2. I’m with you 100%… Thanks my friend! You are a fantastic writer. When you publish a book I would like to buy a copy. Please come say hello if you are ever in the neighborhood. Deb and I have a B&B that you are welcome to stay at. Stay in touch!
    http://www.cloudberrycabin.com

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