An open dialogue built on mutual trust may provide the best way to jump-start the ongoing serious dialogue climate change demands from those who would lead our country. The campaign season makes such a dialogue timely … and urgent.

The presence, or perhaps moreso the absence, of serious climate change dialogue in the run-up to the presidential elections could make the issue a volatile unknown: Few politicians in the national spotlight want to be caught holding strong opinions in favor of aggressive policies to slow, curb, or reverse anticipated climate change.

James Lenfestey, a former Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial writer on climate and education, recently argued in that paper (op-ed 9/17) that journalists should drill presidential candidates on six questions related to climate change, presumably to highlight those who are silent, or openly hostile, toward taking action in the face of this global threat.

Commentary

The media clearly can do a better job in raising serious issues like global warming with those leading, or aspiring to lead, our country. But putting candidates on the spot is unlikely to yield what our country desperately needs: a serious, ongoing dialogue about this global issue, which has connections to nearly every aspect of our society. Such a dialogue must be built on a foundation of trust and respect for political and ideological differences, as well as different scientific backgrounds.

Lenfestey’s six questions can be boiled down to these two: Do you believe global warming is occurring? And, do you believe we should have aggressive policies to counter this threat?

Lumping together opinions about how persuaded one is by the underlying science with questions about the appropriateness of a policy response is a recipe for an unproductive dialogue. Having spent a number of years working with experts drawn from across society to describe the condition and use of our ecosystems, I learned that it is essential to separate these aspects of the conversation — especially for the more contentious issues. In other words, we collectively need to find some common ground before arguing about appropriate policy responses.

We need to build an initiative that is viewed as trustworthy to all of us, no matter our ideological and political positions, or our understanding of science. We can do that. We can run a transparent process — open to full scrutiny and input from anyone — that develops a series of questions and broadly accepted answers relevant to the issue of climate change. Not 100 questions, but rather more like 10. Each answer would be endorsed by experts drawn from across society and viewed as trustworthy by citizens and politicians from across the spectrum, both politically and ideologically.

As an example, these answers would undoubtedly include:

  • Carbon dioxide, a colorless gas present in tiny concentrations in the atmosphere, can trap radiation from the Earth that would otherwise dissipate into space.
  • There is strong evidence of a marked increase in carbon dioxide directly linked with the growth of industrialized societies across the globe.
  • Our “fingerprints” are detectable in the altered chemical nature of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • Long-term temperature trends indicate significant increases in recent decades.

These would be the first building blocks to a serious national dialogue.

Let’s take on this challenge. Let’s develop a robust, multimedia Web presence that brings to life the science behind the questions-and-answers for general audiences. Ideally, this effort would have its foundation on a public Q&A site, like Quora.

Circling back to Lenfestey’s questions, let’s ask each candidate if he or she would support such an open, transparent process to create robust common ground across society. Global warming, which has the potential to irreversibly alter our world, demands a serious dialogue, and now is the time to initiate it. Time is short, and there is a lot to do. Let’s make it happen.

Author
Kent Cavender-Bares is an environmental scientist and the founder of Dialogue Earth, a nonprofit media project that has received major seed funding from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the Foundation for Environmental Research. The views represented are his alone and do not represent those of the University of Minnesota.

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