Avoiding global warming stories

September 26, 2011

Robert Krulwich

I got a call the other day from some producers I very much admire. They wanted to talk about a series next year on global warming and I thought, why does this subject make me instantly tired? Global warming is important, yes; controversial, certainly; complicated (OK by me); but somehow, even broaching this subject makes me feel like someone's put heavy stones in my head. Why is that?

There's not much question the world is getting warmer. We can measure temperatures in conspicuous places (what used to be snowy mountaintops, vast glaciers, the once-icy Arctic sea) and inconspicuous places (ocean surfaces, temperate zones) and facts are facts: temperatures are rising.

The many causes

The question, of course, is why. And here there are a great clump of possible causes: it's the sun's fault; it's some complex cycle of sun/planets and orbital paths; it's coal, it's methane, it's smokestacks; it's us — this vast, increasingly citified, increasingly prosperous blob of humans trying, sloppily, to make a better life for ourselves and our kids and in the process, making the atmosphere warmer.

The true explanation may be some of those. It's probably all of them. And without getting too particular about which is the preeminent one, if the "us" cause is a plausible contributor (and I think it is), then as reasonable people, we should be able to change our behavior to reduce our contribution. But for some reason, reasonable people have been missing in this discussion.

Why the anger?

Instead of saying, OK, what do we do? How much remediation can we afford? Instead of arguing over strategies, the argument instead goes straight to war, to suspicion, to anger.

And why is that?

There are, of course, global warming zealots and global warming absolute deniers. Most people, I figure, live in the middle, a bit cloudy about the data, a bit weary of the hysterics on either side, and worried both ways, about the costs of changing our ways and the costs of doing nothing. I am one of those who say even if the evidence isn't all in, let's be prudent; let's change our behavior.

But on the "skeptic" side, there's a kind of growl in response. And it doesn't come from people who aren't informed; they are often very informed. When they write in to NPR, they cite study after study; a recent paper by Dan Kahan and colleagues at Yale Law School found the more scientifically literate and numerate you are, the less likely you are to see climate change as a serious threat. So this isn't about a lack of science knowledge or that there aren't scientific questions to wonder about. It's not that the skeptics don't have an argument, it's how they argue. It's the anger. That's what puzzles me.

Tell me, says Ursula Goodenough

One of the most troubling and thoughtful blog posts this year here at NPR was written by Ursula Goodenough, over at 13.7. She's a professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, and the author of an eloquent book about spirituality and science. Last June, she asked her readers, if you are a global warming skeptic, what makes you so angry? Or as she politely put it, "What motivates a denier?" She was deluged.

Eight hundred fifty-nine people responded, some of them skeptics, but, this being NPR, lots of them were Global Warming Worriers who had "thoughts" about skeptics. Professor Goodenough did what a scientist and teacher would naturally do; she sorted her reader mail into categories and described what she'd learned — from both sides. The skeptics, she found, were more than skeptical. They were convinced that "the climate-change argument has been either grossly exaggerated or downright falsified, they weren't buying it."

You guys blew it

Why would scientists (of all people) lie about data? The skeptics, she reported, believed "that the scientists were lining their pockets and/or in cahoots with Big Government to change America as we know it. ..." As one of them wrote her:

 

For thirty years I was told the world was going to end and it didn't. All these scary predictions were based on computer models not actual data and they never came true. And the solution always seemed to involve some bicycle riding elitist regulating my life and taking my money. You guys blew it.

 

This has become a standard theme: that the people who say we should tighten our belts and live with less are the people who've already got theirs; they don't want to give the strivers the same chance. Thus, the anger. The Warming Worriers, of course, have their own explanations for what's going on. They seem to think the anger comes from a more deeply rooted, even biological place. Here's Professor Goodenough's summary of their views (with headlines added by me):

 

[INERTIA]:The default setting of the American people is inertia. We tend not to favor things that require a change in our habits, let alone gluttonous creature comforts.

[NOW-ness ]: There was a 10-minute lecture by Dr. Gilbert of Harvard that explains this pretty well. He states that humans have evolved to react quickly to events that are Intentional, Immoral, Imminent, and Instantaneous. Global warming has none of these properties, whereas Terrorism has all of them. Hence we fear Terrorism but not Global Warming.

[ME-ness]: It's something called "inferred justification." ... Essentially people approach things with pre-determined beliefs and then seek out facts to validate their own views and ignore facts that don't support their views. ... This is why the respondents respond with tons of links. They don't care what the facts are, they just want their belief system validated.

[I HATE THAT GUY]: There's no one motivator, I don't think. For some it's politics — "If the liberals/hippies/Democrats are saying it's true, I must assert that it's false!" — and for others, in America at least, I suspect it's related to our deep (and deeply annoying) cultural bias against the very idea of expertise.

[WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?]: For my dad it was not accepting the idea that human beings, when faced with cataclysmic change, would be harmed by that change instead of adapting to it.

[I SMELL A PLOT ... ]: Many deniers I speak with really believe climate change is a conspiracy among Eurocrats and America Haters worldwide to "bring us down to their level."

 

When she was done summarizing, Ursala Goodenough concluded, "I'm not finding many take-homes in all this. The whole experience has left me pretty weary and disheartened." Me too. That's the puzzler here. How do scientists (or reporters) talk about a science question that so many people think is a plot? Or, for those of us who aren't angry, just paralyzed, how do we address a problem that seems so vast, complex and beyond our ability to fix?

A happy ending?

Well, the wonderful thing about Goodenough's blog post is she took that extra step. What she suggested makes sense to me. It came to her while reading a commencement address at Kenyon College by the writer Jonathan Franzen. Franzen told his audience he was not especially interested in environmental issues. "I liked the natural world. Didn't love it, but definitely liked it," he said. Yes, he worried about global warming, overcrowding, habitat destruction and all the rest, but then, about 20 years ago ...

 

I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go. . .. BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It's a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. Whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. ...And now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. ... Now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren't just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.

 

And this, Goodenough suggests, is the key. Everybody, deniers, skeptics, worriers, Greens, all of us connect at some point with other living things, at the pet store, in our gardens, in our backyards, in woods, rivers, hunting, hiking, gazing. We do this every day. Anger isn't an issue when you start with birds you love, roses you love, woods you love, and step by step you find yourself thinking about loving all of it, the whole web of it. These connections, says Franzen, can run deep:

 

Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we're alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.

When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there's a very real danger that you might love some of them.

And who knows what might happen to you then?

 

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.
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