Expert: Win climate change debate by easing off science
Ryan Summerlin July 29, 2010
The battle to get Americans to accept the science behind climate change has been “lost,” an expert at the Aspen Environment Forum declared Wednesday, but there’s still a way to win the war to reduce carbon emissions.
Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, said leaders on climate change need to concentrate on changing behavior in ways that appeal to people – and also happen to reduce carbon emissions.
“Climate scientists – stop talking about climate science. We lost. It’s over. Forget it,” Foley told a surprised audience during a featured panel discussion on the last day of the three-day forum.
He said he likes nothing more than addressing conservatives and trying to win them over. “I like to walk into rooms like that and say, ‘Forget about climate change. Do you love America?’
“And they’ll go, ‘Yeah.’ I’ll say, ‘Doesn’t it kind of tick you off that we borrow money from China, send it to Saudi Arabia to prop up this energy industry … You’re pushing a lot of buttons. They agree on that,” Foley said.
Environmentalists and climate deniers should stop fighting and take action they agree on, even if they approach the issue from different sides, he said.
“The skepticism around climate change has created a trap for us,” Foley said. “Stop digging yourself into the hole. Get out of it. Talk about it a different way. Reframe the issue.”
The Environment Forum was presented by The Aspen Institute and National Geographic Magazine. It attracted more than 300 attendees along with scores of speakers in its third year. The first two days featured dire assessments of various environmental maladies, from the oceans acidifying to the challenge of feeding a hungry planet when the population is supposed to surge from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050.
Wednesday was designed to look more at solutions. Foley was part of a panel assessing how behavior can be changed to encourage stewardship of the planet in a time of “anthropocene,” or the time when humans are the dominate evolutionary force on Earth.
The key to cultivating that change is stopping the battle over whether or not science backs the concept of climate change, Foley said. A handful of audience members challenged the wisdom of his strategy, insisting that people must be educated about the details of climate change science before they truly get behind efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Foley stuck to his claims. Discussing changes in global mean temperature makes people’s eyes glaze over and does little to help them understand the issue, he said. “Talk about things that matter – food, water, your way of life, the place you live, that kind of thing.
“I’m not saying ignore the issue. Turn it around, reframe it,” Foley persisted.
About 10 percent of Americans will align with you if you rally around climate change, he later added, but 70 percent will be on your side if you talk about energy security.
The stakes in the debate are too high for bickering. Foley said meaningful action must be taken to ease carbon emissions in less than a decade.
Another panel member, Rev. Richard Cizik, president of New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, agreed that the war on climate change must be waged in ways people can understand.
People will only change behavior when they are uncomfortable with something happening in their lives or the world – and if they’re given a solution that works.
“You have to be really careful because if you give them an answer that doesn’t work and doesn’t resonate, then you’re in trouble,” Cizik said.