Becoming A Climate Pragmatist*

The climate discourse needs ‘a new way,’ a policy expert advises, with an effort to ‘meet people where they are’ and focus more on solving the climate challenge rather than just winning the argument.


I sometimes feel like I’m stuck in the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Each day, the same scenes play out again and again. But instead of reliving incidents in small-town Pennsylvania, we’re living and reliving our national climate debate. And it just won’t end.

Let’s face it: we’re stuck in the infinite loop from hell. Scientists and environmentalists are on one side, repeating our well-rehearsed lines, while conservatives, talk show hosts and business lobbies are on the other, repeating theirs. Nothing has changed in decades. In fact, the divisions seem to be getting deeper. And Rome burns while we fiddle.

Why are we repeating the same old lines? Does each side expect the other to finally give in and say, “We were wrong! Can you forgive us?” and everything will suddenly be okay?

Don’t hold your breath. As with many issues in America today, participants in the climate debate have dug in and stopped listening to each other.

Hoping to move beyond this rhetorical stalemate, I’ve decided to try a different approach. Here’s how it goes.

First, stop bashing people over the head with climate science. It just isn’t working with some people. In an age of identity politics, increasing polarization and culture wars, our ability to ignore data that contradict our worldview (or personal interests) is extraordinary.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not giving up on climate science, and I continue to spread the science message far and wide. I strongly believe that science matters and we need to continue to speak truth to power. But some people just aren’t listening to the science. So we need to approach them a different way.

Reframe the issue, and meet people where they are. Many of my conservative friends are deeply suspicious of climate change, and they hate carbon taxes and cap and trade. They’re not interested in adapting to a supposedly hypothetical future. Fair enough. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

But these same friends embrace ideas like U.S. energy independence, reducing foreign oil imports, promoting economic growth, protecting our families from harm and improving the U.S. balance of trade. And many of these same friends, while skeptical about climate change, see the wisdom in protecting rain forests and the world’s biodiversity.

Guess what? Many of the things that help reduce the threats of climate change can also be good for our economy and national security, and vice versa. Many of the changes proposed to adapt to climate change are readily justifiable as approaches to shelter our wealth and well-being against the erratic forces of nature such as Hurricane Katrina and the recent floods in Australia. Why not work to boost innovation, the economy, disaster preparedness and national security, and be pleasantly surprised when greenhouse gas emissions and vulnerability to climate change go down, too? Why not approach the debate from another direction, and be happy that we find allies instead of adversaries?

Of course it’s not possible to maximize gain in every dimension at the same time — never has been, never will be. What’s unilaterally best for an oil company is not necessarily what’s unilaterally best for a rural farmer, and doing everything possible to reduce carbon emissions regardless of the consequences could create untenable barriers to meeting other societal needs. But if we — climate scientists, climate skeptics and those in between — are willing to look out for what’s best for everyone, rather than for our individual interests, we can end up in a place that works for all.

Finally, remember that it’s more important to solve the problem than win an argument. In contentious circumstances we sometimes put more emphasis on “winning” than on finding an answer. It’s a natural human reaction, greatly amplified by the highly polarized world we live in today.

But I honestly don’t care who “wins” or “loses” the climate debate. I just want to solve the problem. And I know that there are good people, with good ideas, on the other side, who want to solve the problem too. Maybe, if we all can find the humility to care more about finding real solutions than winning the debate, we can get somewhere.

Anybody with me?


*  Reposted with permission from Momentum magazine, a publication of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. 

Jonathan Foley is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of the Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. He also leads the IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.

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6 Responses to Becoming A Climate Pragmatist*

  1. John says:

    These arguments are welcome, and have been made before. There is an article in the latest issue of Physics Today (Sherwood, Physics Today, Oct. 2011, p. 39) which considers the debate from a historical perspective. A couple of quotes are instructive:

    “The decision [whether to accept the new theory] was not exclusively, or even primarily, a matter for astronomers, and as the debate spread from astronomical circles it became tumultuous in the extreme. To most of those who were not concerned with the detailed study of celestial motions, Copernicus’ innovation seemed absurd and impious. Even when understood, the vaunted harmonies seemed no evidence at all. The resulting clamor was widespread, vocal, and bitter.”

    This was from Thomas Kuhn, writing, of course about the Copernican revolution. And more ‘recently’ there is:

    “The world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends upon political party affiliation.”

    Yes, this of course was Albert Einstein, writing in a letter, in 1920.

    I recommend this article to all who want to understand the current debate. And I can echo a recent headline in The Onion (9/29/11), “Historians Politely Remind Nation to Check What’s Happened in Past Before Making Any Big Decisions.”

  2. Nice article and excellent summary.

    Before we reframe anything, we need to know two things:
    1 What is the science ? -since these are rules we cannot change.
    2 What is our goal ?

    Now our values may underlie our decision to choose just one or two from a list of exclusive goals:
    a briefly strong economy,
    an easy flow of carbon energy,
    a safe future for our children,
    the survival of our species,
    or a dignified and peaceful end.

  3. jude says:

    Global warming is becoming a serious problem in Africa. Who can help man to sole this problem? GOD!

  4. Jon Flatley says:

    There is little that is really “won” in the argument between “global warming proponents” and “skeptics”. Stepping back for a moment…we live in a society of instant gratification. Unfortunately it seems most of the policy makers determine what they are for or against based on election cycles. Politicians can reflect the will of society and I think for the most part the tendency is to live comfortable now and deal with the future later.

    Not everyone feels this way, thankfully, and there is hope that a critical mass of people will sacrifice some now to increase the likelihood of a sustainable future. The science for anthropogenic global warming is very compelling among people who are the most knowledgeable. It really isn’t any more of a “debate” than creationism versus evolution, for most climate scientists.

    If we can learn to live for the benefit of mankind versus what’s comfortable for “me” or our country, then there is a chance that we can improve our influence on the environment and make the earth a better place, not just for your neighbor down the street, but for societies half way around the world, and for future generations the world over.

  5. Toby says:

    Yes, but …. President Obama is a typical climate pragmatist. From openly discussing the reality of climate change in his election campaign, he has moved on to talk about green jobs and energy independence.

    Has he gained a sympathetic hearing from the Republican opposition? Anything but.

    The other sad fact is that the pragmatic measures advocated there will only get us half way there, if even that. In fact, energy independence is a good argument for using dirty tar sands oil and drilling in more and more expensive offshore locations. These will add to the CO2 emissions.

    Science is a place where all sides are supposed to meet on a plane of empirical facts, not political opinions. The world did that on tobacco, acid rain and the ozone hole, despite the efforts of vested interests to prevent it. 97% of climate scientists accept (in the main) the reports of the IPCC. Of course, the science is not settled, there is still a lot to learn, but the main facts are crystal clear.

    While agreeing with any pragmatic measures to move this thing forward, there is no alternative over the long term to acceptance of the scientific facts and global action accordingly. If that violates some deep political principles of yours – then, tough break, but you will have suck it up.

  6. David Lewis says:

    I’ve been involved in climate debate since 1988.

    I don’t see that the people who don’t want to take any action are saying the same lines. Back in 1988 science denial was a glimmer in some backroom thinktank paymaster’s imagination. Richard Nixon proposed the creation of the EPA to Congress. Reagan insisted that the ozone issue be dealt with.

    Now climate science denial is the entire public face of one of the two political parties capable of forming a viable government in the United States on this issue. The divisions don’t “seem” to be getting deeper, they are deeper. Given what is at stake the right wing of the political spectrum has become mentally deranged.

    Your neighbor may have sidled up to you asking conspiratorially how scientists were able to perpetrate this hoax and actually listened to your explanation. One of my neighbors never talked to me again after I mentioned that I had studied global warming. As soon as he became aware I was one of those warmists he knew there would be no point in ever talking to me again. The issue wasn’t discussed in any way at all.

    There is no middle ground here. You aren’t going to find it by going along with what they want because you can imagine it is some baby step toward an adequate response to climate.

    You can propose action that would tend to result in less GHG emissions without mentioning climate change all you want, but the need is to stabilize the composition of the atmosphere as rapidly as possible and the “no brainer” type of policy isn’t going to achieve this. If you say you don’t back down on the science, what do you think about the arguments of the Tyndall Centre’s Kevin Anderson? He says it is a “widespread view” among top flight scientists that 4 degrees of warming is already in the pipeline and that they believe it is “highly likely” this will produce an unstable system, i.e. one likely to increase its temperature on its own.

    Its as if Hitler has conquered France and you’re in England saying no one wants to go to war again so we should propose training the local boy scout troop to use sticks as if they are guns, citing the need for exercise for youth rather than preparation for war so at least some potential soldiers we’ll need later will get some training. Its hard to argue against you if this is really all that can be done, but I’d say there is also a great need for the type of thing Churchill was putting out in the 1930′s, a clear description of what will be necessary to actually deal with the problem.

    We need US leadership on the international stage to get the international cooperation required: how would you suggest that topic be proposed to climate deniers who favor developing the fossil fuel resources of North America as quickly as possible who say this is the way to avoid having to bother with conservation because it will lower energy prices and this is the way to increase US energy independence because production will rise?