Talking About Bio-diversity Loss and Climate Change

The IPCC report on climate change warns of serious consequences if we don’t curb fossil fuel emissions. Under what’s called a “business-as-usual” scenario, we will create a vastly diminished future for us and our children. We need to take responsibility for the adverse impact of our activities, drastically reduce environmentally destructive practices at organizational, policy, and individual levels, and work to remediate ecosystems.

There exists overwhelming scientific consensus (roughly 97% of scientists worldwide agree that humans cause global warming), and yet, a social consensus among the general US public – what climate change is, whether it exists, what to do about it – is lacking. This is remarkable in that most countries do accept the science.

Resistance to climate science proceeds from a combination of factors: ignorance of science in the media and the public; poor communication by scientists themselves; poor science education in public schools; and, unfortunately, political opportunism and polarization. The result ranges from general confusion and social mistrust to outright hostility against those proposing action.

We should recognize the most frequent types of climate change antagonism, in order to avoid the pitfall ourselves. They typically take three forms:

1. Denialism

The problem(s) do not exist or are no big deal. Denialists say things like “we have been here before” and “it’s all a natural cycle and life goes on” and “humans cannot wreck what God created.” For example: when Senator James Inhofe threw a snowball in the congress – true, it was cold on THAT day, but what about the entire winter? Or the past 10 winters?

Inhofe mistakenly conflated “weather” with “climate.” Weather happens on a given day – we say “it’s going to be 72 and sunny in Denver today.” Climate pertains to the prevailing atmospheric conditions over a region. When someone asks, “I’m moving to Colorado. What’s the climate like in Denver?” what they really want to know is “Denver typically has mild winters and heavy wet snowstorms in the spring.”

Skeptical Science offers a long list of denialist arguments and refutations.

BlueMesaEast-2011
Blue Mesa Reservoir, Gunnison, Colorado. 2011.

2. Fear Mongering

Another tactic used by opponents of climate action is to scare people with hyperbolic costs and tall tales of hoaxes. There’s no shortage of blovating heads on social media and cable news declaring, “the Paris accord will cost millions of jobs!” and “a green economy is a socialist plot to take over the country!” and “there’s a climate-gate conspiracy!” Another common one is to discredit the people who advocate for reformation.

On a recent episode of Rush Limbaugh, a caller claimed that Greta Thunberg has been totally brainwashed by the political left. The caller further added that even if Ms. Thunberg is correct, it’s too late to do anything about it. Keep in mind that these blowhards never provide evidence for their claims. Their most frequent mode of attack is the argument from ad hominem. Rather than respond to the evidence with facts, they attach the credibility of the persons making the scientific claims. Ms. Thunberg is not the important part of the issue. Almost everything she has said is supported by science.

As for the claim that it is too late, the reality is that the cost of inaction is far greater. We are already paying billions in economic costs from monster hurricanes, alternating drought-flood events that occur out of season, reduced agricultural yields, health problems, increased ozone pollution and massive wildfires that have been aggravated by warming.

Massive spring flooding followed by extreme heat has severely compromised crops in the midwest. A recent study concluded that if nothing is done to alter our emissions, we will spend so much money as to cause the the US economy to shrink. And if there really is a climate-gate, what explains the Pentagon’s acceptance of global warming?

BlueMesaEast-2018
Blue Mesa Reservoir in 2018 after a multi year drought. Climatologists say that unless emissions are reduced, this – aridification – will become the “new normal” for Colorado and the western US.

3. Doomism

Just as radical as the Denialists and Fear Mongers, the Doomists predict all is going to hell. They have already thrown in the towel, stating that we face full extinction within a decade and there’s nothing we can do about it, that the folks at Extinction Rebellion are lying, and that people should retreat and live as if the earth is in hospice.

The prominent climatologist Michael Mann (who coined the term “doomism”) along with the majority of climate scientists emphasize that it is still possible to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. In this July 26 2019 interview, yes, under a business-as-usual scenario, extreme weather today will become normal in the future, but the good news is we still have time to act.

Political Affiliation

Researchers Risa Palm, Gregory B. Lewis and Bo Feng at Georgia State University conducted a study showing that a person’s political identification – Republican or Democrat – had a stronger effect on attitude toward climate change than other factors, including direct experience with natural disasters.

To explain further, people were most likely to believe the opinions from media that supported their pre-existing political beliefs, those corresponding to the political “team” to whom they have pledged loyalty. Contrary information is treated with alarm and suspicion. Thus, conservatives are more likely to adopt the denialist positions on Fox News, and liberals more likely to adopt views ranging from mitigation and conservation aired by MSNBC and CNN.

These days, just about everything – even food – is politicized. We live in a time of political tribalism and fake news. The question of sustainability should never have become a political football. This is a scientific issue, a human problem. We are talking about lives, about life itself, about geology, biology, physics and chemistry. Scientific truth doesn’t change because of politics or personal opinions.

Prioritization

Action on climate change requires sensible policies and level-headed thinking, not hot headed panic and divisive rhetoric. What the scientists are saying is that we need to prioritize a response consisting of cessation of harmful activities and restoration of the environment. The one way to do this is to take an analytical look at the reality, and make sustainability a primary component of daily life. Every decision and act takes into account environmental impact. Additionally, we need to pressure our elected officials to take substantive action on climate change. Prioritization has both individual and political components. We can buy economical cars, recycle more, and install solar, but we cannot stop corporate pollution without political action.

Prioritization means educating ourselves, our colleagues, and communities, and reorganizing processes and procedures that include sustainability as a fundamental component, not a 10% effort at the end of the day. Prioritization builds environmental sustainability into identity. Take for example, the mission statement of Tenkara USA: “we believe that as more people take up fly-fishing, the more closely they will connect with their environment and help take care of it.” Connecting people with the environment is strongly recommended by the experts interviewed in both Dahr Jamail’s book The End Of Ice and Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction.

Talking About These Issues

One way to achieve prioritization is to create an environmentalist trope or meme, something that becomes second nature in a manner similar to way that “apple pie” and “freedom” conjures pride in Americans. The usability industry has taken a leading role in this effort by developing new techniques under the rubric “Sustainable UX.” User research and development firms have been successful making strong business cases for sustainability because it is now a value held in common by its practitioners.

Climatologist Corinne Le Quéré shares thoughts on how people might talk about ways to live in an environmentally friendly way. A key component is NOT to browbeat others or boast. It’s not about you; it’s about the problem.

However, given the criticality of the situation, and the need for action, it is important to share what can be done. The scientist suggests ways that people who are doing good things can share what they are doing and why they do them.

So, you might say something like this:

  • We installed solar in our house to reduce our electricity from coal-burning power plants. We now get all of our power from a renewable and clean energy source: the sun.
  • We drive small fuel-efficient cars to reduce gas consumption and emissions on roads.
  • We changed to LED bulbs to make our house energy efficient.
  • We upgraded some of our appliances because they are more energy efficient.
  • We recycle and compost in order to reduce landfills and protect our oceans from plastic bottles.
  • We are xeriscaping our yard with native plants to add greenspace to our environment while at the same time reduce water consumption.

You might add the following:

  • We are not perfect in our efforts, and are limited in some things by various circumstances we cannot control.
  • For example, our dog is not carbon-neutral. She farts often. Nevertheless, we are doing our best and focusing on what we can do.
  • We accept the scientific evidence for the causes of global warming and biodiversity loss, but we do not criticize others for their choices. What people believe proceeds from a myriad of sources.
  • Nonetheless, we are open to discussing further the scientific evidence for biodiversity loss and global warming, and what we can do to mitigate them.

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