How to Talk to a Climate Change Zealot

If you don’t have time to read a 2000 word blog post, here are the basics of talking to a Climate Change Zealot (don’t continue the conversation if the CCZ can’t complete a step):

  1. Agree that the climate changes
  2. Ask for one specific policy proposal
  3. Ask how much that specific policy proposal will cost
  4. Ask how much doing nothing will cost
  5. Ask for peer-reviewed journal articles supporting the hypothesis that this specific policy proposal will have the desired outcome
  6. Contact me if you meet a CCZ who completes step 5!

But really, it’s a good post…

Who Are You and What is a Climate Change Zealot?

Great questions.  Hi, I’m Debbie, and I am not (nor have I ever been) a climatologist.  I was also not paid to write this blog post, so put that conspiracy theory back in your pocket as well.  I recently retired from the US Navy, having served for just over 20 years as an instructor at Naval Nuclear Power Training Command (1996 – 1999), a weather forecaster and ship router (2002 – 2003), a hydrographer (2003 – 2006), Navy’s Geospatial Information & Services Officer (2006 – 2009, and yes, this is where I admit that the first ever convention I attended at the San Diego Convention Center was not, in fact, Comic-Con, but was actually the ESRI User Conference), and finally as an assistant program manager (2009 – 2015, both at the Pentagon and finally in San Diego).  For my full résumé, including details on my three MS degrees (Mathematics, Meteorology and Physical Oceanography, and Hydrographic Science), please refer to my LinkedIn profile.

Climate Change Zealots, like art and pornography, are hard to define, but we tend to know them when we see them.  For the purpose of this blog post, I am referring to people who can be characterized by five basic behaviors:

  1. They do not differentiate between climate change (i.e. Earth’s climate has always been and will always be changing, regardless of human activity) and Climate Change (i.e. the amount that humans are adding – which may or may not be negligible – on top of the lower case climate change that was already happening).
  2. Anything bad that happens, from a hurricane to a plane crash to a bad date, can and will be tied to Climate Change.  Here is just one example:  Why Climate Change and Terrorism are Connected
  3. Nothing in the world is more important than Climate Change!  Here’s a great example from Twitter:
  4. Environmentalism is their religion and not believing in Climate Change is a heresy. Since they don’t differentiate between climate change and Climate Change (see number 1 above), your heresy of daring to question Climate Change will be ridiculed in a manner that would make both Torquemada and Alinsky proud.
  5. Last and most important, WE MUST DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!  By “we,” they mean government, and by “do something about it,” they mean spend money on it.  So properly translated from Climate Change Zealot into English, GOVERNMENT MUST SPEND MONEY ON IT!

But I’m Not A Scientist!

OK, so now  you know who you’re dealing with, but you’re worried that since you’re not a scientist you won’t know how to talk to a Climate Change Zealot.  Trust me when I tell you:  this should be the absolute least of your worries.  Not being a scientist has certainly never stopped a Climate Change Zealot from having an opinion, and it shouldn’t stop you.  All you need to know about science are the basics, and the most basic of basics is the scientific method, which I’ll review for you here.

The Scientific Method

The University of California Riverside has a nice little slide show about the scientific method.  The Science Buddies website presents the scientific method as a flowchart.  Regardless of how you visualize it, the scientific method boils down to four very basic steps:

  1. formulate a hypothesis
  2. design an experiment to test the hypothesis that isolates only the thing you are testing
  3. analyze data from the experiments (usually with statistical tests)
  4. determine whether your data support your hypothesis or not

To illustrate how the scientific method works, I will use my son’s fifth grade science fair project as an example.  He had heard that batteries kept in the refrigerator and then used at a later date lasted longer than batteries kept at room temperature, so he formulated the following hypothesis:  “AA batteries kept in the refrigerator will power a small motor longer than AA batteries kept in the kitchen drawer.”  He then used a model train motor to push the = button (having first entered 1 + 1) on a calculator until the battery powering the motor ran out.  By looking at the number after the motor stopped running, he could tell how long the battery had lasted.  He repeated the test 20 times, ten with batteries that had been kept in the refrigerator for a month, and 10 with batteries that had been kept in the kitchen drawer for a month (yes, I know, ideally they would have been kept in those locations for a year or two, but kids only get a couple of months for their science fair projects).  After analyzing the data, he found that they did not support his hypothesis.  That doesn’t mean putting batteries in the refrigerator isn’t a good idea, there just wasn’t a statistically significant difference between how long the refrigerator batteries lasted and how long the kitchen drawer batteries lasted.  As a consumer of batteries, you probably wouldn’t put them in the refrigerator without additional information.

OK, now you’re as smart as a fifth grader, and probably smarter than a Climate Change Zealot.  Let’s start the conversation.

Agree That the Climate Changes

Remember, Environmentalism is the religion of the Climate Change Zealot and you won’t even be able to have a discussion if you are found guilty of the heresy of being a Climate Change Denier.  One of my favorite mantras when dealing with CCZs is “the climate changes, the climate has always changed, the climate will always change.”  Sometimes they make it easy for you and ask “Why don’t you believe in climate change?” The answer is simple: “I do believe in climate change.”  Here are some great examples.

Drought is not a modern phenomenon.  Human and animal populations have been moving to find water since there were humans and animals.  A great example of the impact of (lower case) climate change on humans is how drought contributed to the collapse of Mayan society over 1000 years ago, well before Climate Change can be blamed (unless time travel is equally to blame).  This article is from the Washington Post, lest you be accused of citing a right-leaning source:

More evidence Mayan civilization collapsed because of drought

Rising sea levels are also nothing new.  Once upon a time, you could walk from London to Brussels.  Ask your friendly neighborhood Climate Change Zealot if he or she has heard of Doggerland.  If not, invite them to read this informative primer from National Geographic:

Doggerland – The Europe That Was (The British Isles were once neither British nor isles)

The human race survived the rising sea levels following the Last Glacial Maximum, we survived the droughts of 1000 years ago, and we will survive whatever changes the future holds.

The climate changes.

The climate has always changed.

The climate will always change.

Ask the Climate Change Zealot What, Specifically, They Want to Do

Now that you have both agreed that the climate changes, don’t let the Climate Change Zealot argle bargle at you ad infinitum with nonsense.  Ask for specifics.  Be blunt.  Tell the CCZ that you really want to agree on something, so ask what one specific thing they want to do differently.  At this point, most CCZs will throw a link at you, and it will probably be to a 100 plus page Climate Change study from at least five or ten years ago.  Thank them for the reference and ask what page you should look at for the specific policy proposal they are recommending.  Just one specific policy proposal.  If they can’t offer a single specific policy proposal, continue the conversation later when they can be more specific.

Ask the Climate Change Zealot How Much It Will Cost

Wow, if you’ve gotten this far you have found a truly special Climate Change Zealot.  Remember, and this is very important, don’t argue the merits of the specific policy proposal.  Just ask how much it will cost.  If they say it doesn’t matter, tell them that you are very interested in being won over to their cause, but as a fiscally responsible working adult and taxpayer, you are interested in the cost.  If they do manage to come up with a number, find out if that is the total cost or an annual cost.  Most government budget proposals aren’t straightforward, and they have hidden sustainment tails that aren’t always obvious.  For example it may only cost $100 million to set up a program, but that doesn’t include the sustainment costs of keeping the program going for the next 5 or 10 or 50 years.

Ask the Climate Change Zealot How Much It Will Cost to Do Nothing

A great example here is rising sea level.  I live literally (and I mean literally literally) a stone’s throw from the ocean.  I do not say this idly as someone speaking from Lebanon, Kansas (the geographical center of the contiguous United States, for those of you not in the know).  Humans know how to deal with rising sea levels.  We simply move away from the ocean.  Yes it costs money and causes heartache, but at some point reasonable people have to consider whether it makes more sense to try to stop the whole f***ing ocean or to just move a mile or two away.  Just a thought.  But seriously, you really should ask the CCZ for the business case analysis of DOING SOMETHING versus doing nothing.  In the unlikely event that the analysis has even been done, it may turn out that it is more cost effective to react to climate change than to try to change the climate.

And Speaking of Trying to Change the Climate…

Well hopefully you won’t get this far (most people don’t), but if you do, this is where that little lesson on the scientific method will be helpful.  Let’s assume for the moment that your CCZ has a specific policy proposal in mind, knows the price tag, knows how much it will cost to do nothing, and the quoted price tag is significantly less than the cost of doing nothing.  Now you must ask the Climate Change Zealot about the science behind his pet policy.  Ask for specifics on how he knows it will work.  Ask for peer-reviewed journal articles supporting the hypothesis that this policy will have the desired impact on the climate.  The CCZ will almost certainly not be able to provide these, but in the rare case that he does, please do get in touch.  I would be very curious to both read such an article and meet the one Climate Change Zealot who actually understands the scientific method.

In Summary

It is entirely possible that there are one or two policies out there that make both scientific and fiscal sense.  The best way to effectively combat the Climate Change Zealot is to think of yourself as Indiana Jones and to think of a scientifically feasible and fiscally responsible environmental policy as the Holy Grail.  Be genuinely curious when you engage with a CCZ.  If you ask this series of questions with the honest intent of finding this proverbial Holy Grail, you will have a much more meaningful exchange with the Climate Change Zealot, you will (hopefully) not be branded a heretic, and through your patient questioning you may just win over a rare convert.