Getting Beyond Polarization #2—Climate Change As Teacher

I feel deep concern about how, with issues of every sort, people today are dividing almost immediately into polar camps. The concern ultimately relates to something of much greater significance than just the unpleasantness of discord. Polarization is getting in the way of the kind of thinking our future well-being as a species depends on. 

I wrote my most recent book Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord: Why We See Such Extreme Social and Political Polarization and What We Can Do About It in response. With each chapter in the book, I describe how we might bring mature systemic perspective to one issue where divisiveness too often prevails—war and peace, climate change, health care delivery, abortion, immigration, identity politics with regard to gender and race, and the often conflicting views of science and religion. I chose the concerns I did because each has something particular to teach about addressing issues more systemically. 

A basic observation provides the architecture for the book: In times past, when we encountered polarized positions and partisan advocacy, our task was obvious and unquestioned. We assumed that there were only two options and that our job was to figure out which one was right and fight for it. When we think systemically, we recognize that what we are seeing is left and right hands of a larger picture. We also recognize that neither side has yet to ask the hard question that ultimately needs to be addressed. 

I included climate change because it provides particularly good illustration of the importance of starting with the right question. It also helps us see possible contributions and blindnesses from each side. When I first wrote about the possible dangers of climate change over thirty years ago, I could not have imagined that we would be so slow in taking these dangers seriously. And certainly I did not have any sense that climate change would become so contentious and polarizing. 

Asking the Right Question

The question with climate change as conventionally asked focuses on whether the science is definitive—whether science has proven that climate change is real and man-made. But that was not the question I was asking decades back when I first argued that climate change needed to be taken seriously. I knew that solid data would take time and even if we had more data, proof in this sense is not what science is about. The real question with climate change is not whether the science is right or wrong, but rather whether the risks as best we can know them are worth the gamble. 

On the basis of risk assessment, it was clear to me even at that time that the climate change question had in effect already been answered. I will sometimes ask people who make the accurate limits-related observation that we can’t know with absolute certainty whether global climate change is real and then use it to justify not responding to the threat what they think the odds are that human-caused warming of the planet is happening and could have dangerous consequences. I make them commit to a number. I then ask them how they would feel about their children playing Russian roulette. Few people are willing to claim that the odds of global warming being real and significant are less than Russian roulette’s one in six. And the few who might maintain this claim have a hard time escaping the recognition that their conclusion has more to do with ideology than carefully considered evaluation. 

Why Systemic Perspective is Essential

It would be easy to think from this description that I side wholly with the position of the political left when it comes to climate change. But in the end, this is not the case. To appreciate how the contribution of the Right also pertains to the climate change debate, it helps to think of the climate question as having two parts. There is the question of whether human-caused climate change is real. There is also the question of just what to do if it is. The need to think more systemically applies in each case, but in ways that have different implications. 

With the question of whether climate change is real, the important distinction is that ideology is not how I arrived at my conclusion. I consider people on the political left who assume climate change is real while knowing very little about it to miss the point just as fundamentally as climate change deniers. Their ideological blinders are much less likely to cause immediate harm than the absolutist claims of the political right, but the basis for their conclusions is no closer to being systemic in a culturally mature sense. 

As far as what should we do, including all the systemic aspects becomes more clearly essential. There are multiple strategies we can apply for addressing climate change. Some are more societal, others more technical. With each kind of strategy, the Right and the Left each have insights to contribute. They are also each often in denial about significant blindnesses. 

With more societal interventions, we commonly encounter traps on both the Right and the Left. If people on the right are willing to entertain the basic conclusion that human-caused climate change is real, they are still likely to think that we can get away with making changes slowly. In fact, the data that we have makes clear that we don’t have the luxury of taking our time. But the Left can be vulnerable to an opposite kind of trap. If we make changes without carefully thinking them through, we could see the collapse of economies. And most likely it would be the economic conditions of people who are already the most vulnerable that would be affected first. Those of more ideological inclination on the Left are quick to assert that the development of more sustainable energy resources will boost economies—and I agree, at least in the long term. But I also think that the common assumption of the Left that a transition to renewable energy will happen rapidly and smoothly without collateral damage is naïve and more a reflection of polarized thinking than any kind of reasoned reflection. 

Ideological blindnesses also present obstacles when it comes to more technical solutions. Again, they intrude from both the Right and the Left. From the Right, as the consequences of rising temperatures mount, we could see a strong push to apply simple technical fixes. An array of approaches that could artificially lower planetary temperatures are potentially available—from the seeding of clouds to reflect the sun’s rays, to altering ocean acidity, to less radical methods that capture and store carbon. But most good scientists counsel caution when considering at least the more extreme of such approaches. At this point we have no way of knowing whether the results ultimately would be of more harm than benefit. And certain unintended consequences could well be catastrophic. It is possible that over time we may decide that some such methods are safe enough given the alternatives—at least as temporary measures. My point is simply that if we do eventually decide to make use of more technical interventions, we must do so from reasoned consideration, not out of reactions of a simple-answer, ideological sort. 

From the Left, blindnesses of a more technical sort manifest in the requirement that interventions must pass tests of ideological purity. Liberals tend to assume that certain approaches—such as solar, wind, and geothermal—are unquestionably good (even a bit holy). These methods are appropriately celebrated. But again, if we are to recognize where there may be needed tradeoffs and apply approaches wisely, the basis for choosing a method can’t simply be ideology. We also need to be sure that other approaches that might have potential benefit are not dismissed out of hand. In my book Hope and the Future, I described how I have gone back and forth through the years as far as whether nuclear power has any appropriate role. At one point in my life I spoke out strongly against nuclear power. Most recently, I have become more open to thinking that it could be ons part of the solution, at least for the short term. I have been surprised to find people on the Left not only taking immediate issue with this suggestion, but in several instances rejecting the whole book because I had entertained it. 

To address climate change effectively, we have to start with the right question. And when it comes to solutions, we have to step beyond ideological assumptions and think in ways that draw in the most complete way possible on the diverse ways of thinking that being human makes possible.