Stop fighting about global warming


Let me be clear as possible about that headline. No, don’t stop fighting global warming. Don’t stop trying to do something about it. Yes, stop fighting about it. Stop wasting time with science deniers. That means stop arguing with the crazy uncle at family gatherings and the dittohead at the watercooler. Don’t let the trolls hijack the comment threads and cause you to frustrate yourself trying to convince the unconvincible.

Why stop? Did the urgency of global warming suddenly go away like a melting glacier in a time lapse film? No. Not a bit. The urgency is actually an argument to stop trying to persuade those who have required us to learn terms like epistemic closure, motivated reasoning, and debunking blowback effect. We don’t have time to waste on the minority that will never be convinced even if the prairies become home to cacti and the lizards who served as monsters in early 50′s schlocky sci-fi. The keyword there is “minority”. That’s right, in terms of getting the public to accept that global warming is real, we’ve already won. True, it’s a minority with loads of fossil fuel industry money and a major political party under its thumb, but we already have the sort of majority that usually means you’re going to win politically. Clearly that majority hasn’t been enough, which means we have to change something we’ve been doing, like, say, spinning our wheels in pointless arguments with deniers.

Only about a quarter of Americans deny that global warming is real. Add in some people who accept it’s real but insist it’s natural, and at most we’re talking about a third. A large majority in every state accepts it’s real, and that holds true even for accepting it’s man-made. Where the numbers are dinky is the percentage who say they’re personally affected, and I’ve seen other polls showing global warming is a low priority. That’s where we haven’t been convincing.

I’ve been thinking about this since Bill Nye went on Meet the Press to debate global warming with Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-TN. They were presented as equals of course. Is there a point? I recognize going into the proverbial lion’s den to talk science is Bill Nye’s thing, and maybe he’s convinced someone of something. If we just had to somehow persuade more of the Fox News audience, then what he does would be a necessity. There’s not even any harm in trying, provided it doesn’t stop us actually addressing the problem, and I suspect Nye does his segment on Fox and then goes to talk to people who will actually listen. But we can’t all do that, and we can’t keep letting action wait upon convincing the people who vote in GOP primaries. Look in the comments on the Nye link, and there are science deniers making the same claims that have been discredited for 20 years, making it clear that either they didn’t listen or they’re sure Nye lied about everything, and then a bunch of realists hoping to show them their factual and logical errors. See any actual reasoned discussion going on?

So we just move on? Yes. Move on from “is it real?” to “what do we do about it?”, and that means moving on into two different segments, the political and the practical.

“The political” means we stop trying to convince science deniers and we start trying to defeat them. Something that I suspect partly accounts for the many people who think global warming is real and man-made, but not serious, is candidates steer away from the subject. Avoiding controversy is instinctive for politicians — be fair, instinctive for most human beings — but making progress on issues requires talking about them, not merely waiting for public opinion to be where we want it. So we need to support advocates for action over those who merely accept the science and hope they won’t have to deal with it. Lacking advocates, then support realists over deniers. If there’s no appealing candidate, get involved in a different race. Get behind candidates willing to actually campaign on the issue, as Terry McAuliffe did in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race. Oh yes, small point … McAuliffe won … and in defiance of Virginia’s long history of electing governors from the non-presidential party.

I’m not saying running on global warming is sure winner. I am saying it appears to be more a help than a hindrance for the candidate that runs on it. I’m likewise saying that running on it is a necessity to move public attitudes, win or lose in a specific election. Are there no nuances? Of course. We’re not the GOP: we don’t turn on candidates and incumbents who cast one vote we don’t like. There are districts where the word “environmentalist” is poisonous. But there are places where such isn’t the case, yet candidates demur on this urgent issue. Thus why I say focus on replacing deniers with realists, and realists with advocates. That’s the only hope for serious action. Perhaps it’s heartening to see the climate talkathon by about half the Democrats in the US Senate, provided they didn’t just repeat “it’s real” over and over (I heard only a few minutes, so can’t judge). To the extent that other Democrats feel they take a political risk by not being identified with #Up4Climate, it’s a very good thing. Make it clear where you need to be if you’re a Democratic politician.

Not that I would reject a Republican realist. Sometimes someone in the opposing party agrees on one issue, so work with them on that. I’m just against holding off action while waiting for any Republicans, because being a climate realist almost surely means being a Republican primary election loser.

“The practical” means there are complicated issues about what exactly to do about the problem even once we have climate realists in positions to make policy. There are plentiful questions where fact-based people can disagree. Just how bad do things have to get before geo-engineering ceases to be too risky? And even then there are multiple proposals, so geo-engineering might make sense if we do this but not that, or if we do this, then that ceases to be an option. At no point should “Is the greenhouse effect real?” be part of that discussion.

Likewise, people who are strong advocates for addressing global warming support expanding nuclear power … and think nuclear is a lousy idea. That’s referring of course to nuclear fission. The joke about controlled nuclear fusion is that it’s 20 years away, always has been and always will be. But if it worked, the fuel is the most abundant element, hydrogen, and the waste product is helium, which we’re facing a shortage of anyway. So we should spend more on research, right? Except if we assume research funding for alternative energy technologies is limited, does going bigger on fusion mean shortchanging solar or wind, which have shown immediate promise? Or are they far enough along to be funded commercially, without government grants?

Hydropower doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, but damming rivers can kill wildlife, and evaporation can increase which reduces available water downstream. Carbon sequestration could let us keep burning fossil fuels, but long-term storage has potential hazards, like sudden eruptions of carbon dioxide suffocating anyone too close to the accident. Biofuels use carbon already in the air rather than buried as coal 300 million years ago, but production uses what would otherwise be part of the food supply, and it might mean putting marginal land into production which causes its own pollution problems.

Anyway, the point I hope is clear, but just in case: what to do about global warming is plenty complicated, with lots of room for disagreement and uncertainty among people who accept the science, yet here we are engaging in flame wars with internet trolls. There’s an argument that we’re not trying to persuade the deniers, but rather observers. Good in theory, but in specific instances, do we really know who the observers are? Are they people who don’t have a fixed opinion and can be persuaded by facts? Consider me skeptical that such persons are really hanging out in comment threads on climate articles, or are listening patiently by the watercooler. Besides, refer back to the polls I linked to: the deniers are already down to roughly 25% of the population, roughly 30% including the people who deny just the “man-made” part. The percentage of undecided is in the single digits. The point of arguing for observers is to persuade the undecided and win a majority.

There are almost no undecided, and we’re already the majority. Move on.