Friday, July 02, 2010


As acidly as I might characterize Climate Crisis deniers--especially the professional ones, the moral equivalents of decades of cigarette company shills-- I don't think everybody who professes skepticism about global heating is malicious. I know they are basically and tragically wrong, but I still am interested in getting as many of them on board as possible.

So I was interested to see this Chris Mooney piece in the Washington Post with the headline "If Scientists Want to Educate the Public, They Should Start By Listening." Mooney writes that skeptics aren't necessarily uneducated. "For one thing, it's political outlook -- not education -- that seems to motivate one's belief on this subject." He suggests that instead of just talking at these people, scientists listen to them. For on the Climate Crisis as well as two other examples of issues that aren't controversial among scientists but have substantial and seemingly irrational opposition among the public, Mooney writes:

"These three controversies have a single moral, and it's that experts who want Americans to take science into account when they form opinions on contentious issues need to do far more than just "lay out the facts" or "set the record straight." What science says is important, but in controversial areas, it's only the beginning. It's critical that experts and policy makers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; and in this, they mustn't be deceived by the fact that people often appear, on the surface, to be arguing about scientific facts. Frequently, their underlying rationale is very different."

This article got an angry and typically lengthy rejoinder at Climate Progress. Part of the objection involves not naming the real culprits, which include the corporate media and the disinformation campaign heavily financed by fossil fuel industries and their pr lackeys. While I can understand the frustration--once again, the responsibility is put on the scientists, plus (though they don't say so in this post) climate scientists who do venture into the public typically are met with very organized, very aggressive and practiced deniers who spurt out spurious charges and bogus information so fast and so relentlessly that there is never enough time to properly answer them.

Those deniers aren't sincerely interested in either listening or really in being listened to. But there are some whose opposition, while not really based on questioning the science, have reasons stemming from their lives and sincere attitudes. Apart from those whose reasons are ideologies so strong and automatic that their minds can't be changed, there is probably a subset--admittedly very small (since deniers are a small percentage of the public to begin with), but there are some who are troubled but open enough to profit from dialogue. As long as it is dialogue.

Here's how I put it in my comment on this Climate Progress post:

"We’re once again into a both/and rather than either/or situation about the Mooney piece. Yes, for various reasons the media has misreported on the climate crisis. Yes, corporate power is probably part of why. Yes, science education and communication are weaker than they should be. And very much yes, a highly funded disinformation campaign has provided reasons to doubt climate change for people who are predisposed to want to doubt climate change.

There are other factors that Mooney doesn’t discuss, like the immense psychological barriers to accepting the logical conclusions, the consequences of the climate crisis, like the end of the civilization they know, one way or another. Like the political fact that there has never been a crisis quite like this: a crisis (until recently) of the future that’s invisible or easy to ignore in the present, governed by such apparently unfamiliar concepts as lag time, tipping points and cumulative impact.

But what Mooney does discuss is valid: for repeat deniers not on fossil fuel payrolls, it isn’t all about feeding them information. It is also about listening to them. About understanding where they are coming from, in their lives. Listening allows information to be translated and applied directly to their concerns. It permits analogies and metaphors, specifically meaningful to them. It means taking their real life consequences and concerns into consideration in designing the methods of addressing the causes and effects of climate change. It means allowing everyone in the community to talk about this, without fear of being demonized, and to work it out for itself.

Frankly it is unlikely that scientists or politicians can do this. They need a more neutral but creative third party. The most successful dialogues I know of came after a small theatre company’s piece on climate change, in which they employed comedy that went after everybody’s pretensions. There must be other ways to overcome the mutual not listening of today’s debates. There is very likely a significant subset of skeptics and deniers who must be listened to before they can themselves hear.

Will this convince everyone? Not likely. Will it build support to pass climate crisis legislation? Maybe not, and maybe it’s not necessary because as the polls show there is plenty of support for doing…something. Maybe the extreme rhetoric we’re hearing is sound and fury signifying nothing, which will become apparent in November. But this environment is toxic in more ways that one. We face hard times ahead. We need a wider understanding."

That theatre company--called Human Nature--was on my mind because I attended an award ceremony honoring them over the weekend. They are from the nearby and ironically named town of Petrolia, California. Despite the name (and the fact that it was the first place in the state where oil was discovered, though there wasn't much), it is in a rural-to-wilderness area of the Lost Coast, the Mattole valley. There were a lot of people at that ceremony from that community, which has supported Human Nature for a generation.

True, many of these are ex-hippie back-to-the-landers, not your typical denier profile. And true: Human Nature started doing theatre about local environmental issues, like salmon in the rivers. But they did make fun of the pretensions of both sides, and they still do. Still, I think it's remarkable that the community is so much behind them, when the show they've been doing for the past four years (as well as the new one) is about the worldwide phenomenon of the Climate Crisis.

And it's also true that the dialogues that followed their shows often happened on college campuses. But people with doubts did show up (as did climate scientists) and they did talk, and their views were honored. And sometimes, that's how it has to begin.

As I mentioned at the end of my comment, we're facing tough times as the Climate Crisis effects become more obvious and need a lot of attention. I worry about that. On the one hand, we have a country so apparently divided, with really extreme, really barbarous views being openly advocated--with a lot of hostility expressed in very violent terms towards people of color, of poorer circumstances as well as contrary political views. And there's the Supreme Court arming their "revolution." Along with government being vilified, and too broke and broken down by years of being bled for profit, that it's ability on any level to address an emergency is pitifully diminished. All that tends to suggest these communities can't survive a crisis--that they'll get the violence, selfishness and panic our Social Darwinist apocalyptic mythologies assume.

On the other hand, there's Rebecca Solnit's book, documenting the positive ways people respond and help each other in a crisis. And there's the hope that once people are listened to, they can themselves listen. And the people trying to talk to them can speak to their concerns, at least enough to convince everyone of basic good will.

What the efficacy of dialogue can be on the current efforts to get a climate bill through Congress is an open question, and I have my doubts. That seems to have it's own momentum, and it may be more important that it is an extremely hot summer so far in Washington, as well as elsewhere in the world. And that whatever temporary stall there was in the statistics has ended, and this year we're clearly again in record-breaking global heating.

Speaking of heat, the first stories on Senator Robert Byrd said he'd been hospitalized for heat exhaustion and dehydration. That was quickly forgotten when the eulogies started, but maybe it shouldn't. Lots of unnamed older people are doubtless dying in the DC heat, and elsewhere. Denying this and related effects is murderous, and eventually suicidal.

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