Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why I Will Not Talk with a Climate Change Denialist

That is, if I can reasonably avoid it.

I live and work in Oklahoma, the hotbed of creationism and climate change denialism. I feel like I am a missionary in a hostile tribe just because I accept scientific evidence. I am, for the most part, personally reclusive about my knowledge of evolution and climate change. I, of course, am quite clear about them when I teach and write, but I seldom engage in discussion about them with people who disagree. The only neighbors who know my views are those who have first declared their similar views to me.

I tell everybody I can about botany, the science of plants. But the reason I seldom speak in person about the sciences of evolution and global warming is that I will almost certainly experience personal attack if I do. Today, I joined in with other activists at an information table outside a farmer’s market to tell people about global warming. This is something I have not done before and probably will not do again. Most of the people who went by were supportive, to varying degrees. This is something you might expect from the visitors to a farmer’s market. But there was one climate change denialist who decided to subject me to a barrage of lies and tried to make me feel like I was a force of darkness and repression.

Okay, I started it. A man and his wife and baby were leaving the farmer’s market. Our information table was not within the market itself, but in the lawn of a nearby church that had specifically invited us to be there. I spoke first. I said, “Thank you for coming to the Farmer’s Market. By doing so, you have helped to reduce your carbon emissions, because you have bought local produce that has not been trucked across the country for thousands of miles.” I thought this was a positive thing to say.

But this was when the man decided to launch his attack. He said that there has been no global warming for the last ten years. I told him that my own research has clearly demonstrated global warming over the last twelve years. (I will present some of my data in another essay.) He simply said that I was lying and had made all of my data up.

But he did not stop there. He said that the government must have paid me thousands of dollars to do my research, and that I was being paid to say that global warming was occurring. I told him that I had done my research entirely for free. I would have told him that I gathered my data about budburst dates in deciduous trees by simply writing them down almost every day for two months each of twelve years, something that required no money. But I didn’t have a chance to do this. He just called me a liar again.

Next he said that Barack Obama was an evil man, a liar, and a hypocrite because of all the fuel that he burned in Air Force One to go to Paris to sign the climate agreement. Of course, when Trump uses a lot of jet fuel to fly to his personal vacation resorts at taxpayer expense, it is just fine. According to an AP report by Chad Day, published last month, “Flying Trump to Mar-a-Lago on Air Force One twice cost at least $1.2 million.” The report continues, “...documents made public Thursday by Judicial Watch are some of the first to put even part of a price tag on Trump’s frequent visits to his Palm Beach, Florida, club. The numbers reflect only the costs associated with the president’s plane, Air Force One. Not included are expenses for Secret Service protection or support vehicles provided by the Department of Defense, which must be airlifted into place.” This is just fine, according to Oklahoma Republicans, but Obama flying to Paris to sign the climate agreement was evil.

Why did the man criticize Obama flying in Air Force one? The key was that the man called Obama a hypocrite. You see, the reasoning seems to go like this. Democrats say that burning unnecessary jet fuel is bad for the climate. Republicans, however, say that they can burn all the jet fuel they want for any reason whatsoever. Therefore, if a Democrat ever burns any jet fuel at all, it is hypocrisy. For Republicans, however, it is not, since they say it is not a problem. This is like a thief saying that it is okay for him to steal money, but not okay for a person who disapproves of theft to do so.

So the only time a denialist will so much as listen to someone who disagrees with him or her is if that person lives in a hovel and is not responsible for any carbon emissions. Well, I don’t quite live in a hovel, but I am very frugal in my energy use. I didn’t get a chance to tell him this, but if I had, I imagine he would have called me a liar, just as he did regarding my research.

The man also claimed that, unless every other country in the world becomes perfect, the United States should not try to do anything at all. We will be, if he and Trump have their way, be the very last country in the world to reduce our carbon emissions. So much for America being a leader.

The man’s final attack was to say that environmentalists wanted to keep Africans poor and diseased and miserable because we want them to not have any electricity, any at all. This is, of course, not true, but I didn’t have a chance to say this. Another person who was with me started to say it, but the man refused to listen to it. We tried to tell him that locally-generated solar and wind energy makes electricity more accessible to rural African villages than would building billion-dollar power-plants, precisely because it would save the expense of thousands of miles of transmission lines from point of production to point of use.

I did get a last few words in to the wife with the kid. She told me she came to the market for safe food. I said that, even though we disagree, she was part of the solution to the climate problem. What she was doing was good for more reasons than she had known. I think she might have been inclined to agree with me on that one point—I sensed a distinct lessening of tension—but I think she did not want her husband to see her agreeing with me about anything.

There are some evolution and climate change denialists who are reasonable people, not necessarily in their approach to the information but at least in their approach to me. There are denialists who will not call me an evil liar. But they are rare enough that I think I will just stay away from any personal discussions on these subjects.

I think it is about time for this old missionary to retire. At some point, it is time to move to some place in which one is not constantly in fear of personal attack. France looks like a pretty good place, especially since the new prime minister has specifically invited climate scientists such as myself to move there. As explained above, if you accept science in Oklahoma you are subjected to the same kind of verbal attacks as black people were throughout the South in the pre-civil-rights era. If I had been black in the 1950’s and France had invited me to come, I would have taken the invitation very seriously.


  1. Stan, first, you are a bright and wonderful gem in Oklahoma. You grew up here, know the state, can relate to the geography, plants, life, history, language and all. For years and generations of students you have labored to bring your advanced training, understanding of, and enthusiasm for the natural world - and of science generally, to all who you met. In your work and through entirely volunteer efforts such as OAS, OESE and even the Farmer's Market. You have done a great deal of good; and reached people who others, lacking your cultural roots, could not reach. So, give yourself some golden stars and some quiet satisfaction. You are a great resource for Oklahoma. Having said all the above.. I can also agree that it is a difficult time to carry our message of science. I recently had a 3-4 day exchange of facebook messages back and forth with a stranger, a friend of a relative in a state back east. Younger man, alternately civil (because not wanting to offend family of his friend) and outrageously dismissive of scientific expertise. Ignorant of any basic science, he declared his views about how completely incorrect I was about everything to do with climate and other science. Striving for equanimity (in hope of maintaining some comity and the possibility of some glimmer of enlightenment for him and maybe even some mutual learning), I managed to forward to send him the exec summary of the IPCC and the position statements of the AAAS. Something piqued his curiosity. I think he may have read a bit.. but a day later (I think probably reinforced by his online buddies) he haughtily dismissed them as garbage, and returned a paper from the CATO INST. as an authoritative rejoinder. We continued our give and take for a few more days. I tried to be gentle and considerate and he was markedly more dismissive of my intelligence and critical thinking. I didn't mention any of my university training (at Berkeley, Oxford, Washington, Wisconsin, N Carolina, UCSB et al.), but it is all on my 'Facebook' page, where the conversation began. He knew, I think, that I was 'a doctor'. I was aware that climate denialists often suspect (& hate feeling like) their interlocutors believe them to be ignorant. I did not want to create this barrier. After a few days, it became apparent (to both of us) I think that information was not going to get through and persuasion was not going to happen. We both gradually withdrew with marginally cordial parting shots. Days after, I am struck by how this middle-aged stranger with some university training (no science and perhaps no degree) felt empowered and privileged to call me deluded (I drank the 'kool-aid'in his words.) No respect for learning or expertise whether it be me or IPCC or AAAS. He felt it quite appropriate that he call us out as either paid-off evil-doers or simpletons not able to decipher plain truth. I have kept the conversation and hope to use it verbatim with his name removed in my classes (and in my own thinking) - considering how to reach for truth and share knowledge or wisdom in times such as these. Strikes me we need a new Socrates, or Plato. Or perhaps, better, a Carl Sagan to capture the emotional lower brains of our citizens so that their higher brain cognitive centers will pay attention. I suspect that clever marketers and spin doctors have already figured out the science and have been employed by the opposing camp for many years to produce the current impasse. Enough. Rest a while, Stan. Smile. You have done well. You still have much to give. You can become a John Muir and give to those who will come to walk with you in the world.

  2. It's hard not to lose your temper in situations like these. I know I feel like exploding when I hear and see nonsense like this from people. I believe it is outrageously arrogant for a person with no scientific training to believe that he or she knows more about a scientific topic than a person who has actually devoted his or her life to studying the subject. It would be like telling an engineer that I know more about bridge building and how to keep a skyscraper from tumbling down than he or she does...or telling Ben and Jerry I know more about making ice cream than either of them (note: I don't make ice cream). However, that is not the thought process of these people. They think there is some grand conspiracy, and why do they think this? Because their information sources (brainwashing sources) tell them that this is true. I recently had a conversation with a woman who told me that scientists have uncovered evidence of an ancient civilization under the Antarctic ice and it was going to completely change history. She thought I needed to know this information since I am looking for a job as a school librarian. She was adamant this was true; I'd never heard it before and figured it was nonsense since no news organization was talking about it. Come to find out, the "news" organizations that had put out this information were tabloids. Oh, and she told me I shouldn't believe the Discovery Channel or NASA when it came to this kind of information, but apparently, I should believe tabloids????? It's kind of funny, but it's also very sad. What I am trying to make myself feel is pity for these people rather than anger. The truth is that they are being manipulated by those conspiracy nutjobs out there who are spewing this garbage. And then the nutjobs tell them that anyone who disagrees with them is part of the conspiracy, and the audience just laps it all up. So the conspiracy theorists out there--some of whom actually believe the nonsense they're peddling, some who don't care and are just in it for a buck--have succeeded in making people see the world in a nonfactual, conspiracy-laden way. The problem is, as Ken Hobson notes, you can't just go up to that person and say, "Oh, poor you. You are so ignorance and innocent. Do you not see how you've been brainwashed?" because these people like to think of themselves as savvy news consumers who can't be swayed by the "liberal media." So as Ken notes, you have to rely on something else. Everything I've read about dealing with climate deniers is that they do not respond to facts. Why? Because they have their own misinformants spewing lies. From what I've read, one must approach these people with humility and compassion and explain not what the facts are but our personal stories instead. For instance, what originally made you passionate about the environment? Describe the majesty of the world around you. Has someone you've known suffered from pollution? What other connections do you have to the environment? It is hard, but you have to treat them respectfully even if in your heart, you know they're idiots. :-/ (Sorry for the long response.)