Politics are complicated, so is science. When the two are combined the confusion is multiplied. Both offer methods for identifying problems and solutions.
Politics are inherently competitive, subjective, and conflictual. Science is inherently uncertain and attempts to be objective. For the most part, the two do not mix. When they do, extremes arise in response to a silent majority.
The environmental movement has a political problem that results from extremism. On one side, you have those who believe a nature-centered life is the only option for humanity’s survival. These groups are often unwilling to have a conversation about energy that does not cover the science of global climate change.
On the other, you have those willing to dismiss any environmental discussion as hippie propaganda. These groups may not be willing to discuss anything if global climate change is mentioned.
Both sides appear to be destructive and both offer solutions they believe are the only option. Both are threatened by the other. The rest of us fall somewhere in between alarm and dismissal, caring more about energy costs and impacts on our family than the science behind it all.
Extremism is naturally dominating and unappealing to the masses
Environmental debates, specifically those surrounding global climate change, have been marred by partisanship. The result has been a fracture between two sides, rather than a nuanced discourse about an endless number of valuable solutions.
Not only that, but the solutions proposed by extremist groups are stubborn. The deeply alarmed cannot fathom the idea of natural gas and the deeply dismissive are willing to let single alternative energy failures destroy visions of life beyond coal and petroleum. Both of these stances have been popular in recent political conversations and could benefit from a more open-minded, middle way approach. With so much conflict it is no wonder that the environment consistently comes back as a low priority for Americans.
For the most part, extremist groups are highly engaged because they are ravenously dedicated to their cause. This means that you are more likely to hear their opinions above the crowd. Not only that, but the most outspoken (and crazy) also make for more entertaining news coverage.
It is no wonder that the most reasonable among us have decided to separate from the issue. A recent PEW report found that out of 12 issue priorities, most Americans ranked the energy third from last. Chances are, if you are reading this then the environment and energy are much higher priorities for you. How can you compete in the echo chambers of the extreme?
Focus locally, be patient globally
First of all, it is important to accept that not everyone is engaged or interested in science, much less scary science like that so often quoted in the environmental fields. Additionally, science is complicated and difficult to understand without complete dedication; most people just do not have the time to learn more. In September 2012, 44% of Americans were likely to believe there is a worldwide scientific consensus on the human causes of global climate change, but that’s better than 2008 when only 35% were likely to believe there was scientific agreement.
Natural disasters tend to gain the attraction of the public. As do international environmental events. Oddly enough, the cooler months between October and December appear to bring seasonal attention to global warming, at least in recent years.
Last week, Sandy devastated the East coast of the US. In response, New York Mayor Bloomberg endorsed President Obama based on their shared concerns about global warming. The next day, Bloomberg Businessweek printed a shocking cover story meant to bring more attention to the issue (photo to right). In President Obama’s acceptance speech last night he stated clearly that the US would not be “threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
In three weeks, people and organizations from around the world will come together to discuss future plans for addressing the issue at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is also November. Will these factors supercharge the environmental debate again? It is too soon to say, but I am hopeful.
What can be said is that we are not going to be able to continue addressing global climate change as we have in the past. Since the Kyoto Protocol was signed by every country in the world (except the US) there has been little progress coming to an international agreement.
Most scholars would also agree that the Kyoto Protocol lacks teeth without commitments to specific solutions and consequences for failure. The 2012 UNFCCC promises to address this weakness, but we may have to wait for the next report from the International Panel on Climate Change due next year before anyone will seriously consider the science again. Despite this, there has been plenty of change on smaller, regional, national, and local scales.
From dominating political conflict to collaborative engagement
The state of Hawaii is on track to lessen its current carbon footprint 70% by 2030. There were also a record number of solar installations in our country over the last 4-5 years. Of all the alternative energy investments made under the Obama administration, more than 90% have been successful.
Community gardens and local food movements are becoming the norm in many cities as grassroot campaigns discover more impact on a small scale than they do globally. Green business certification programs are also becoming a growing trend as entrepreneurs realize it is smart to save money, despite political disagreements.
Coal and petroleum are limited resources and the US does dominate with either on an international scale. Natural gas on the other hand, was partially responsible for a drop in CO2 this year and remains a top industry for the US. Still, it requires the inherently destructive processes of mountaintop removal and fracking. It is also a new industry that will likely evolve towards clean and less impacting processes in the future.
In line with feelings of alarm, accepting that humanity is seriously threatened by a changing climate; should we not be willing to consider all possible options if there are ways to address shortcomings in the future?
Technological innovations and improvement should be considered before we throw any options off the table. Natural gas could very well provide an easier, less polluting transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It is not the end solution, but it may provide steps in the right direction.
Solar is also a powerful industry that both sides could agree on. As the number one producer of solar products in the world and the fastest growing energy sector, the US solar industry has committed to defending its title. Recently, the US won an international case which supported tariffs on China for artificially lowering the costs of their solar products. Additionally, the solar industry has set a goal to price solar power at the same price as coal per watt ($1/watt) by 2016. Right now, the industry is ahead of schedule and our country would be wise to support it.
If you ask me, the solutions start at home where each of us can work towards conservation measures whether or not we agree on climate change or environmental issues. Saving money appeals to everyone and that matters because approximately 39.4% of the US’s energy and 67.9% of our electricity was consumed in our homes and buildings. If you do not want to be an environmentalist, you should still consider conservation.
Every opinion is valuable
Extreme environmentalists are concerned deeply about the state of our planet. To their credit, NASA estimates that we are moving through a period of warming during this century that is accelerating ten times faster than the previous century. Such an occurrence has never happened in the last 800,000 years. Yet, using fear to translate this message turns away more people than it attracts. Without hope, Americans are almost wholly unresponsive to catastrophic alarm.
The environmentally dismissive are concerned most about the impact of policies and decisions on their family. Especially when it comes to the economy. They are not wrong to be concerned as our country’s recovery moves slowly.
The answer may be found in our unwillingness to compromise and collaborate on our ideas for the future. Natural gas comes with the inherently destructive practice of mountaintop removal and fracking, while solar, wind and other alternative energy programs are still more expensive than coal. All of these points are important and our country would be best served to consider them each carefully.
According to psychological and political science theory, most of us are influenced strongly by the opinions of our friends and family. These are also the people with which we should feel most comfortable discussing new and controversial ideas. Understanding is an art, but each of us is capable of learning how to listen.
The more we listen the more we will learn to speak the many diverse languages of our peers. Perhaps, the silence and lack of concern perceived to surround environmental issues actually stems from a misunderstanding of other individuals’ values. Let us lower our voices and listen without fear of disagreement.