Monday, October 6, 2008

Climate Conservatives

Over the weekend, I attended a high school reunion with my wife. One of the great things about reunions is that you get to talk with people from all walks of life, who typically have a wider variety of opinions than your co-workers or neighbors. One of my wife's classmates, after hearing that I work at a federal laboratory that does climate change research, asked whether or not I believed in global warming. The question really took me by surprise because, to me, global warming is like gravity: it doesn't really matter whether you "believe in" it -- it just is.

I responded that her question made me wonder whether or not she believed in climate change. She explained that the issue made her very upset because of how political the debate had been, and that she didn't believe in global warming at all. She said she didn't trust Al Gore, and she thought he was a hypocrite for making so much money from his film and for flying his private jet between stops on his "climate crisis" tour. If the facts in the film had been presented by a scientist, she said, it probably would have done more to persuade her about the problem. The central issue seemed to be about credibility, not about facts. I tried to imagine my own response to claims about a crisis coming from a source that I didn't trust.

In situations like these, it's important to try to communicate with people using arguments that will not instantly be rejected by their conservative viewpoint. I tried to explain that when our parents were our age there were still significant uncertainties about climate change, so we couldn't really blame them for not acting. While scientists were establishing the root causes of global warming, the greenhouse gas emissions of humanity had exceeded the capacity of the natural world to absorb them -- and there was so much surplus carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere that even if we stopped the emissions now, the planet would still continue to warm for nearly the rest of our lives. So the debate about climate change was really about what (if anything) we should do to influence the kind of world our children and grandchildren would live in.

I also pointed out that politicians were no longer arguing about the reality of climate change. The real debate was about how much we should do to mitigate the problem. Look at the proposals of the two major presidential candidates in this election year: the Democratic candidate is proposing to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 (a target drawn directly from the scientific recommendations of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) while the Republican candidate is proposing a 60% cut. Furthermore, only the Republican candidate for vice-president has expressed skepticism that climate change is primarily caused by human activity. Everyone else agrees with the scientific consensus.

I may not have convinced my wife's classmate to reconsider her position on global warming, but I'm fairly sure that I presented the issue in a manner that she could identify with. If conservatives continue to resist efforts to mitigate climate change, they are the ones who will have to explain to their grandchildren why they failed to take action even after the science was clear.