Debating Climate Change Has Limits – Let’s Start Talking About the Weather

Written by Nick Licata

This piece also appears on Medium for easier reading and submitting comments


In a debate, one side wins and the other side loses. How many debates end with the losing side agreeing that they were wrong? It doesn’t happen. And that is why the climate change debate is not converting deniers into believers. Each side on this issue is focused on rolling over the opposition.

The recent national student walkout from schools to draw attention to climate change is certainly converting more youth and the college-educated people to become believers. But protesting as an organizing tactic has limited effectiveness, a strategy must employ multiple tactics to win over deniers or doubters. And, there are many. According to a recent poll taken by the Climate Mobilization Project, while 36% of the public believe that Climate Change is a serious problem, 36% of the population also believe it is a minor problem or is not worried at all. Consequently, we need to think about how to reach those folks and the other 28% who do not believe it is a serious problem.

One approach that should be pursued is to focus on something that is more mundane and not as catastrophic as earth’s destruction, let’s try talking about the weather. That is not an attempt to diminish the importance of climate change. Instead, it lends itself to having a discussion, not a debate, because everyone talks about the weather, republicans and democrats alike. And it impacts all of us. So, where does that discussion begin?

The starting point is recognizing that extreme weather is becoming more frequent. The statistics are there. For instance, in January 2017, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 2016 was the hottest year on record. It was the third year in a row to set a record for average surface temperatures, a continuation of a long-term warming trend.

But just laying out facts, particularly if they are not tied to personal experience, don’t carry much weight. Studies have shown that our beliefs more often stem from our personal experiences than from abstract concepts. Climate change believers need to talk to those who have had their job or quality of life negatively impacted by extreme weather conditions. Here are just two examples of how that can be done.

Montana has voted only once for democratic president since 1980, Bill Clinton’s first race in 1992. Barak Obama lost by 2% in his first race while Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by over 20%. However, during this same period, they have been represented more years in congress by democrat than republican senators.

This pattern indicates that Montana voters may not strictly adhere to the republican stance in denying climate change. Their democratic Senator Jon Tester addressed a Bozeman community gathering of 200 people in February 2017, consisting mostly of farmers and ranchers, to describe how climate change has resulted in Montana having less water availability, increased weed growth, intensified and more frequent drought.

By grounding the issue of how extreme weather conditions are impacting their jobs and daily lives, the denial of climate change begins to weaken. For instance, rancher Erik Kalsta who attended the meeting was quoted by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle as saying that he doesn’t feel that successful agricultural producers are totally in denial — they may not like the term, but they respond to the changes.

While Montana is a rural state with only 3 electoral votes, Florida is now one of the most urbanized states with 29 electors. Although registered Democrats have always outnumbered republicans, in the last 13 presidential elections, the Democrats won only five, including Barak Obama’s two victories. In the last 2 president races, the winner won by .9%  and 1.2%. This state could go to either party in 2020.

Florida has been identified as the most vulnerable state to climate change damage resulting from flooding and massive storms. In the last three years, Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Michael in 2018 have battered Florida’s southeast and northwest, for a combined $13 billion in property damage insurance claims, excluding flood damage not covered by homeowners’ insurance. Regardless of party affiliation, residents and businesses were devastated in Florida’s republican oriented panhandle and the democratic leaning Miami-Dade region. Those losses do not begin to measure the displacement that occurred with each storm. Irma alone prompted evacuation orders for 6.5 million people in Florida, the largest evacuation in modern U.S. history.

People want immediate solutions, but they also do not want to keep paying more and more for catastrophes that can be avoided. The deniers argue that the weather always changes, so there is nothing to be done. Or they argue, it’s part of a historical regular cycle. They are falling into the same abstract talk that has burdened climate change believers; they are not recognizing that most non-engaged people are more concerned about how their lives are being directly impacted now and not how they have been in the distant past or will be in the distant future.

The dominant political response from both parties has been to provide financial assistance to the weather victims and to offer proposed adjustments in their physical infrastructures to limit damage in the future. Both approaches are expensive and will continue to grow in costs as increased massive storms and rising incidents of floods and drought become a reality as projected by scientists. The question of who pays for these additional costs, allows the discussion of climate change to move to identify who can do something now to reduce future massive costs going to taxpayers. And, that comes down to replacing carbon-based energy sources with renewable energy sources.

By addressing how to mitigate both the destruction of personal property and the taxpayer burden for covering those losses, a discussion can lead to figuring out who is benefiting by stalling or opposing this mitigation. The answer becomes readily apparent: those who have financial investments in the old technology that is dependent on carbon fuels, which hard data show has contributed to extreme weather conditions. Shouldn’t our political leaders be addressing the broader community’s interest in protecting their jobs and homes, than be concerned about protecting the status quo of those who are protecting their own interests first?

This is a message that could resonate with a broad swath of voters from republican states like Montana to purple states like Florida. It begins with a discussion about the weather, not a megaphone announcing impending doom.

We can do something about the weather! The question that needs to be asked by those who are ambivalent about the seriousness of climate change is, do you want to continue to live with more disruptions in your life?  Do you want your future to continue to be uncertain and pay more taxes for a never-ending stream of measures trying to reduce future damages? If not, then the other option is to recognize that we can create a better, more livable environment by altering our technology to lessen our carbon emissions. All that is stopping us from taking that approach is the will power to demand action from our government to represent the needs of the majority of people, not the minority who financially benefit from inaction.

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