Becoming a Climate Pragmatist

Jon Foley

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.

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?

JONATHAN FOLEY
Director
Institute on the Environment

 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the University of Minnesota.