We live in a sharply polarized political and cultural environment in which it has become increasingly difficult to discuss urgent issues across the divides. With the emergence of purity policing and call-out culture, amplified by social media, it is difficult enough to conduct honest, civil conversations even with people who share most of our own opinions and values.
If we’re looking for an issue that tops all others in urgency, anthropogenic global warming is a good candidate. The warming atmosphere has begun to destabilize Earth’s climate patterns with unprecedented speed. Through the remainder of this century, the rate of change will be orders of magnitude too rapid for numerous life forms to adapt. It will be far too quick for human societies to adjust without immense dislocation and suffering. We’ve made only feeble attempts to retard or halt the process, though we’ve known about it for over three decades. Meanwhile, debate around climate change has become toxic and dysfunctional.
In this case, the toxin came mainly from the political Right. As the philosopher Neil Levy has argued, the scientific topic of global warming was intensely politicized by organizations with vested interests in unrestricted capitalism. These hired the notorious “merchants of doubt” to propagandize against respectable science—the doubt merchants set out to debunk the whole idea of global warming and climate change. There was no deep reason such radical science denial should have become a shibboleth for right-wing orthodoxy, but it’s now the case in many circles. There is evidence that many right-wing or conservative citizens view acceptance of climate science as the mark of an ideological enemy—an ill-intentioned person who cannot be trusted and should not be given a hearing.
Free-market opportunists and fanatics have the most to answer for in this instance—they have acted cynically to damage the social fabric—but left-wing environmentalists have not always been helpful to their own cause or to the planetary future. In that respect, another philosopher (and environmentalist), Simon Keller, expressed something of a mea culpa in a book chapter published in 2015. Keller points out that the revelation of dangerous global warming, backed up by more and more research, was not a surprise to environmentalists, who already possessed values and a worldview that made them receptive to the message. The facts about global warming fitted well with environmentalists’ pre-existing understanding of the world, which included a critique of indefinite economic growth. For this group of people, news about global warming even seemed like a vindication.
Clearly enough, it is more difficult for people to accept the consensus science of climate change if they begin with different values and a different worldview. If you doubt this, put yourself in their place for a moment. If you begin by valuing technological innovation and industrial development, with no special love of the wilderness (or “nature”) and with a deep distrust of government activity and international institutions, thirty years of findings from climate scientists will not seem at all like a vindication. The findings will fit badly with your pre-existing worldview, giving you a prima facie reason to reject them. They will seem alien and counterintuitive. You won’t be able to absorb the science without adjusting your view of the world. That is more frightening than it sounds, because it might open the door to other, unknown and unwelcome, adjustments. You will look upon the science with suspicion, and you might find the merchants of doubt reassuring and persuasive. Their claims will make intuitive sense.
Given such considerations, Keller thinks it would help the public discussion to highlight ways in which the facts of global warming could fit with a wider range of ideological views. This could mean putting on the table all options for responding to global warming and climate change—from just letting it all happen, to adapting to it, to countering it aggressively with geoengineering technology. In a sincere discussion between people with conflicting worldviews, we might even agree that some measures are unfortunate but necessary—to be adopted, that is, with a degree of reluctance rather than with environmentalist triumphalism.
The question here is how we can encourage people who are naturally suspicious of climate science to consider the science on its merits. Keller suggests, and I agree, that we’d be better off if we could think of those people as what most of them really are: decent individuals who are trying their best, from a different starting point than our own, to make sense of a perplexing world.
At this late stage, the situation with global warming is becoming desperate, and I doubt that a truly effective package of measures in response—if such could be identified—would now make any political or other group completely happy. Ten years ago, I would have considered some measures beyond the pale of serious consideration. By now, however, we need to talk honestly with minimal rancor, and without delay, about every genuine option, however distasteful it might seem. That includes but is not limited to carbon taxes, stronger international institutions, greater use of nuclear power, adaptation measures, and research into the science of geoengineering.
Climate change is an issue of the highest priority. More broadly, however, public discussion on many issues has become toxic. Discussion becomes toxic once some participants will not even listen to their opponents and critics, whom they view as untrustworthy, fundamentally bad people. Some of our opponents and critics might indeed be avaricious, opportunistic, crooked, or worse; in that case, they deserve little respect. But most are good people who legitimately disagree with us. Many of them have interests and experiences that are worth considering. Some might bring important parts of the truth.