August 3, 2023

John Thompson: Science and Climate Change

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During the midterm elections and as the 2023 Oklahoma legislative session unfolded, I focused on the interconnected threats to public education, as well as the narratives necessary for countering rightwing alt facts. I’ve long been struck by the inter-related similarities between the corporate funded attacks on public education, other public sectors, and our democracy, and how we can best counter their narratives. Now, as deadly storms and heat waves are again starting to rip through the continent, we need to think anew as to how we can defend our planet.

When I was a teaching assistant in the1970s, I mentored a kid on politics and he taught me about global warming. My friend, Ken Caldeira, went on to become a key leader of the Nobel Prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) team. In 2018, Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine’s “Losing the Earth: The Decade When We Almost Stopped Climate Change” (IPCC) drew upon Caldeira’s insights. The Magazine’s special edition documented the time between 1979 and 1989 when “the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and [nonpartisan politicians] …raised the alarm to stave off a catastrophe.” The special edition produced “an agonizing revelation – to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it.”

Now the global warming crises are much more eminent, but bipartisan efforts to confront the rapidly approaching, irreversible tragedy seem impossible. However, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, by Katharine Hayhoe, updated the magnitude of the world-wide crisis, as well as the political and economic forces that undermined the progress that once was being made. It also draws on the cognitive science which explains why the general public did not demand action. Hayhoe closes with suggestions for framing facts that could persuade our political system to save the Earth.

First, as explained in the Times’ “Losing Our Earth,” fossil fuel industries, whose research was consistent with that of the IPCC’s, started to hide the facts they had documented about the need for aggressive efforts to stop global warming. Hayhoe reports that they have been “responsible for nearly 9 million deaths worldwide each year, negating 50 years of progress.” The single biggest threat was the “100 fossil fuels companies responsible for 70% of heat-trapping gas since 1989.” Moreover, the top 8 companies “accounted for 20% of fossil fuels and cement emissions since the industrial revolution.” The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that fossil fuels companies receive $600 billion per year in subsidies.

Hayhoe explains that it is estimated that Covid could cost $22 trillion from 2020 to 2025. Climate change could cost the same amount every two years. Also, almost 40% of emissions are controlled by choices made by wealthy countries.

One reason for American inaction is the false spin funded by Big Oil, but we must look to cognitive science to understand why so many have believed their lies. Deep-pocketed corporations nurtured tribalism and anger to persuade voters. They understood that, “We lean to people we trust and our tribe.” Also, they understood that “study after study has shown that sharing our personal and lived experiences is far more compelling than reeling off distant facts.”

Advocates for decarbonization haven’t been as skillful in addressing how to transition “while keeping the lights on and continuing to improve local jobs.” A 2020 poll found that 70% of respondents said global warming is harmful but only 43% said they will be harmed. Moreover, climate activists haven’t been careful enough in presenting their case without sounding as if they were judging people. This prompted anger on both sides of the political debate. Better framing is essential because anger “can lead to despair and powerlessness or unstoppable conviction if we can turn it into tangible action.”

Hayhoe and my friend Ken Caldeira have much in common in terms of both the science of climate change and the cognitive science, as well as the art of creating better conversations. As the threats of global warming grew, his increased openness to technological solutions prompted pushback. But he argues that we no longer have the time to reduce global warming without investing in a range of technological solutions.

Then, when I called to congratulate Ken on sharing the Nobel Prize, he spoke forcefully, “I did not earn a Nobel Prize. Our team earned the prize.” When I asked him what was the most important thing he had learned, Ken replied, “Treat everybody on the team with equal respect.”

Similarly, Hayhoe says we must bridge the “psychological distance” that separates climate activists and climate deniers. So, first, we “need to bring our hearts to the table, not just our heads.” When she visits survivors of extreme weather events, she sees that people in denial still respond humanely to catastrophes. We must be careful about judging people, and engage in conversations that “connect who we are to why we care.

Hayhoe draws on science where “study after study has shown that sharing our personal and lived experiences is far more compelling than reeling off distant facts.” She also draws upon Lady Bird Johnson, who said the environment “is one thing we all share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but focusing lens on what we can become.” So, whether we are talking about climate change or the other political battlegrounds where we’re defending our democracy, we must find more effective means of discussing these existential threats.
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