Imagine you worked at a men’s shirt store, making the world’s most luxurious and stylish shirts. Day after day you stitch together, by hand, plates of fine Egyptian cotton for your clients. Your father did this, as did his father, and his before him; countless generations of clothiers perfecting the art of the dress shirt. The hands of your forefathers guide your fingers as you place stitch upon stitch upon stitch into sleeves and cuffs, chest plates and collars. One day, sitting in your shop you hear the bell over the door ring. The din of traffic on your street grows momentarily. You look up to see a man who you assume is looking to be fitted for one of your shirts. Suddenly, before you can speak, the man rushes over to the counter and throws his body towards you. His vise like hand ensnares your collar and he rips you from your seat dragging you up and over your workstation and towards the door. When you ask him why he is doing this, he tells you that making shirts is bad for the city. He says that for the good of all people you must now become a fitness consultant. You struggle against his grasp but you are still overpowered in every way. This store was not only your life, but it was your father’s and grandfather’s lives. Apparently, without your input, that rich history has been bleached from the tapestry of time and you are powerless to fight it.
Lately, I have been wondering if this is how at least some of the people who deny climate change feel. Fossil fuels are a deep and integral part of the United States’ history. Nearly all of the industries that bore this country from struggling colonial settlement to world super power were either fossil fuels themselves or industries that directly depend on them. Large parts of the American east were built up by the coal those regions produced. Fortunes, and the communities built on its heels, were made off of oil in Texas. The automotive industry, ever a source of national pride, depended on the oil trade for fuel. The steel industry that gave rise to the mighty cities of the nation was dependent on coal. The railroad companies that bound the nation together depended on both steel and coal to move the most important people and the most important goods of their time. This is a deep, deep history and a source of American pride. The entire American dream of being able to start with the shirt on your back and build an empire is spelled out time and again in oil and coal; in steel and train tracks.
But now, people come on to the scene suggesting nothing less than one of the most radical paradigm shifts imaginable. It sounds to those who deny climate change like climate advocates are telling everyone to abandon a ship that has served us for so long. It sounds like a call to dive in to the cold and murky waters of the unknown without a clear sense of direction. It sounds like a terrifying proposition and I wonder sometimes if that is why people are willing to forgo solid scientific evidence and hold fast to an incorrect assumption. Humans have evolved to be afraid of change. If the known is working adequately, why change to something that is unknown and potentially dangerous?
This is why it’s important for climate advocates to be conscientious of how we present data. I feel like I will always be harkening back to Chris Mooney’s Washington Post op-ed about how resistance to many things in science (vaccines, climate change, nuclear power, evolution in schools) is framed as a science issue but is truly an issue of emotion and trust. Telling people in fossil fuel industries that their trade is killing the planet leads to them taking up a defensive stance. People do not listen when they are worried about being dragged from what they have known their entire lives.
If climate advocates want to help the world change, we must realize the magnitude of what we are suggesting. We must then realize that, while the path may look simple to us, to others it is an unnecessary one filled with danger and uncertainty. It is our job not to oppose these people, but to work with them. Not to force their views in line with ours, but to gently guide them onto a better path. Sometimes good science should be presented like a sledge-hammer; shattering preconception and false observation. But other times it is important to realize that when dealing with people there are many competing and conflicting emotions. This may be the greatest challenge of being a climate change advocate. It is undoubtedly a part of the challenge we face.
I shouldn’t have to say, however, that we must face it.