As discussed in Coercive PC Discourse, there is a lot of insulting and shouting when it comes to climate change. As the summary of the post said:
But there is a way to reduce needless division over the countless disagreements that are inevitable in a pluralistic democracy: get better at accurately characterizing the views of folks with differing opinions, rather than egging them on to offer more extreme statements in interviews; or even worse, distorting their words so that existing divisions seem more intractable or impossible to tolerate than they are. That sort of exaggeration or hyperbolic misrepresentation is epidemic—and addressing it for everyone’s sake is long overdue.
In the interest of demonstrating how climate realists can deal in a civil manner with disagreeable others, I provide some further helpful examples from Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Excerpts from his recent emails with my bolds.
1. Promoting Dialectic rather than Debate
Late last week I got this email from reader Peter Conley. I hope you find it as motivating I do. Peter is proof that with enough study and practice it’s possible to get amazing results in your energy conversations. At the end I’ll tell you a new technique I learned from Peter’s email.
I use [your framework] to discuss the issue of energy every opportunity I get and it is highly effective at promoting dialectic rather than debate. I had an experience with a schoolteacher on a Southwest flight recently that illustrates its effectiveness:
Teacher: “Do you believe in climate change?”
Me: “That is a very interesting and complex topic. It’s obviously very important to you. What are your thoughts on the subject?”
Teacher: “We need to stop it!”
Me: “And why is that?”
Teacher: “Because the ice caps are melting!!”
Me: “And why do you care about that?”
Teacher: “Because sea levels will rise!”
Me: “And why is that alarming?”
Teacher: “Because coastal cities and entire countries will be underwater!!”
Me: “So, you’re concerned about the negative impacts it will have on people?”
Teacher: “Of course, I don’t want to leave such a dangerous world to my grandkids.”
Me: “Of course not, neither do I. Would you agree then that when we think about this issue, we should use human flourishing as our standard of value?”
Teacher: “Yes, definitely!”
Me: “Do you know, then, if human deaths because of climate-related factors such as extreme hot, extreme cold, and drought are increasing annually or decreasing?“
Teacher: “Well, I’d imagine they are increasing.”
Me: “What if I told you that the number of such deaths worldwide have decreased from over 3 million one year in the early 30s, to under 30,000 in this decade?”
Teacher: “Wow! Why is that?”
Me: “Because of technology. Because we are so much better at protecting ourselves from the naturally dangerous environment than our ancestors were. So, what would you say the most basic human need is?“
Teacher: “Food, shelter, water, security.”
Me: “Those are all actually products of fulfilling one basic need, one basic necessity; the most basic human need is energy.”
He agreed, and further agreed that we must look at all costs and benefits and had a two-hour discussion about those. He was able to understand my thinking and said “I didn’t know that” far more times than he said “I don’t know about that.”
I like your point that the energy industry is the industry that powers all other industries. I have found it highly effective to explain that point after first asking “What is the most basic human need?” Most of the time I get answers like the teacher gave, or references to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Helping the person conclude that energy is the most basic human need helps to frame the conversation in terms of human flourishing . . .
I appreciate all the work that you do, and you have inspired me to do what I can to correct the conversations people are having.
As I said at the outset, you’re doing an amazing job.
Here are two tactics I want to experiment with myself after reading your note.
Getting agreement on a pro-human standard by asking “Why” to their value statements. I usually get another person to agree on a common, pro-human standard by asking something like “Would you agree that the best decision is the one that most advances human life?” But your way is intriguing. When they say they care about something, you keep asking “Why” until you get down to the level of an ultimate standard—and then you offer “human flourishing” as your view. One reason this is effective is because it quickly introduces the idea that there need to be reasons (standards) for caring about things. Another reason it’s effective is that you’re challenging the idea that environmental change—ice caps melting—is inherently bad. I imagine that you need to strike a careful tone while asking these questions. If you come across as completely indifferent to the thing they claim to care about it could backfire. But if you ask the question earnestly, indicating that you’re looking to clarify not contradict, I can see how it would work well.
How you explain that energy is a fundamental need. The question “What do you think the most basic human need is?” Is an engaging question to ask. By getting the other person to state what they think are the most important needs you’re connecting them very concretely to the requirements of human flourishing. And then you show how energy is fundamental to those needs, connecting energy to human flourishing. This ensures that access to energy doesn’t become anything resembling optional or derivative—it stands as fundamental.
2. What to do when someone calls you the devil
I’ve been listening to some of your interviews on YouTube and I sincerely appreciate your effort to make the case for fossil fuels. I am about to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering and I have a job lined up to work for a major oil company at their largest US refinery.
On my college campus I encounter people that seem to be so clueless as to the benefits of fossil fuels that I don’t even know where to begin to try to convince them. I talked to one young freshman girl and when I told her that I want to go work in oil and gas, she responded with “you mean Satan?” I was so stunned at her hostility that I didn’t know how to respond. I just said “yeah sure,” so that I didn’t have to engage in a combative conversation. What do you think I should have done in this situation?
Great question, Zachary.
Imagine that you had told the freshman not “I want to go work in oil and gas,” but “I want to go work for a hospital.” And she had responded “You mean Satan?”
How would you react?
Here’s my guess:
- You would find her response hypocritical; you would be sure she and certainly those she cares about have taken advantage of the life-and-death benefits of hospitals.
- You would find her response offensive; she is assuming you would work for an evil enterprise.
I think the exact same reaction is warranted in the case of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, like hospitals, have risks (hospitals have more) but are indispensable to human flourishing. If someone condemns us for pursuing a career providing energy that billions of people need and request, they are being hypocritical and offensive.
In my experience you can profitably point out either of these if you do so politely and calmly.
Express curiosity about hypocrisy
In the case of hypocrisy, I like to take a tone of curiosity and/or confusion, not condemnation.
F: “You mean Satan?”
You: “I’m curious why you think they’re Satan. Just looking at you right now you appear to be a major user of their products…”
She’ll either acknowledge that she’s a user or not—either way you can transition into why we all use products of the oil industry.
Be offended (but calm)
You: I’m curious, would you ever work for an industry you believed was evil?
F: No, of course not.
You (gravely): Neither would I. (Don’t break eye contact.) And I find it offensive that you think I would without asking me why I chose to work in this industry.
This will give the other person the opportunity to apologize and express sincere interest in your thought process—or to be rude and prove unworthy of your time.
Let me know how it goes!
Bravo Alex for engaging people constructively in the battle for hearts and minds as we perhaps enter a cooling period where our energy needs will be even more pronounced.
Previous Post with different examples: Civil Climate Discourse
Footnote: For more on how green zealots are poisoning the social environment, read the poignant story of Tisha Schuller, an environmentally responsible energy consultant writing in the Breakthrough Institute Journal: Reclaiming Environmentalism How I Changed My Mind Without Changing My Values
Schuller on where she is today:
For several years, I stopped calling myself an environmentalist. After five years of threats, extremism, and misinformation from a community I’d once considered myself a part of, I simply couldn’t use the term anymore.
It’s easier, now, to unwind my complex relationship with environmentalism and environmentalists. I’m no longer a target of constant criticism and threats, for one, and I have the mental leisure to dissect my own experiences and prejudices. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve become passionate about reclaiming the term. I am an environmentalist.
But I can no longer embrace many of the totems that have come to define environmentalism for many people.