Friday, December 9, 2011

My Face Off with a Climate Denier

I met a climate denier and a Tea Party disciple the other day. It went well all things considered. He only threatened to knock me off my bar stool rather than actually knocking me off. Apparently because he was a born again Christian, my life was spared. All of this is true.

It snuck up on me as I was on vacation, checking out the local color on a beautiful island on the Gulf of Mexico. He came into the sparsely crowded bar wearing a festive t-shirt, smoking a cigar (which you can still do indoors in Florida), and wearing a small gold cross around his neck. He greeted people as if running for office.

His jet black hair was a little too black but he looked good and moved swiftly. When he plopped down on the barstool next to me and flashed me a smile, I thought this guy could be interesting or at least fun.

We didn’t get to climate denial until he had told me all about himself including his days as a professional hockey player in Minnesota where he grew up. He liked to talk about himself, but that’s ok. He told me if not for Christ, he might be dead from money and drugs.

He told me he had a huge house on the island on some nearby hill. I said there are no hills in Florida, and he said there is now -- he built it. Probably dredged the mangroves for the fill but that’s another story.

I forget the exact moment when things unraveled between us. I think it was when he told me the basis for his climate denial.

He said that as he has observed it -- from his seat as a financial planner or something like that backed with his extensive scientific training as a professional hockey player -- sea level on the island has not changed since he has lived there.

Stacks of peer reviewed science and consensus, sworn statements by Nobel laureates, and every government in the world confirming climate change were not going to slow him down.  His front yard was still dry.

But maybe the facts don’t really matter so much. It’s odd how these things are spoken as if faith rather than science. That may be part of the communication problem, and there is a communication problem.

If only 47% of Americans attribute climate change to human activity, there is a serious communication problem. And as a professional communicator, mea freaking culpa.

Our face-off added a hard twist of discouragement to such frustrations. Not because he was sitting there denying climate change and not because of the aforementioned large number of Americans who would agree with him, but because I could see no opportunity to try to persuade or even learn: We were both making too much noise.

We were both buying into the hyperactive hyperbole that drives a schism between people who otherwise might listen to each other, even a little.

Much of it has to do with the national conversation, created by the media and good PR on both sides. Tension and controversy and wild statements sell almost as much as sex. Often if one side is shouting and the other side is taking the “high road”, the shouter is only one people hear.

Plus, people including tough, retired hockey players, can only take so much doom and gloom before they shut down. Who wants to agree to all that climate calamity? They’re actually invoking a self-protection mechanism and shutting down the depressing scenarios at the source. Hence, denial.

National personalities and emotions don’t help either. A good part of why this denier so vehemently denies is he simply does not like Al Gore. He has a visceral reaction to him. I saw the veins in his head bulge when he talked about the great climate change guru. I can understand this. If my new friend had told me to believe that something Rick Perry says is true and right, I might want to knock him off his bar stool.

But the gloves did not really come off until he called me “ignorant” and “stupid” more than once.

The bartender winced, and looked over sympathetically. She of course knew the guy.

It did not help that I followed up by asking him if he was “a teabagger”.  That’s when he made the comment about knocking me off my bar stool. For future reference, Tea Partiers do not like to be called teabaggers, even if delivered with a brash schoolyard smile.

At about this time, the bartender asked us both to quiet down as we were scaring the other customers.

Anyway, I didn’t bring you this far into the story to let it end with a shushing.

Fear not climate believers, all is not lost. There are ways around.

So I asked him what about pollution, thinking few people are pro pollution. And what about innovation and business? How about we do it differently than humans have been doing it for 10,000 years (burning stuff to create energy)? I also brought up energy independence. No one really wants to see young Americans killed in far away places so we can still drive cheaply to the strip mall.

And surprise, surprise, he was fine talking about all of that. We proceeded to have a good conversation about clean energy and technology. The name calling was over and I stayed on my bar stool.

Maybe the lesson is when confronted with climate deniers and tea partiers, don’t argue science or belief.  Talk about things people can understand and that are not depressing. And look for the possible hot button reason why that specific person is really so against something, and avoid it. When I didn’t mention the term climate change or Al Gore, I was singing a lullaby.

But there is no set playbook for this. To carry the sports analogy one agonizing step further, if you’ve got a guy in the penalty box or if you’re up against a fast team versus a big team, you need to change up and improvise. You need to try to assess your opponent and work on the areas that can get things done.

Did I make a difference? Maybe not, probably not, but at least I got him talking in a positive way about renewables.

Soon after, my new friend finished his beer, and just like that he left, off to another local haunt, probably to find cold comfort with some other denier. They have to stick together. It’s a lonely road.

We’re all unhappy about the situation but when you choose to do something, to acknowledge it, life has endless potential and meaning. Denial is for fossils and darkness. Step into the light and join the human race.

After my new friend walked out, the bartender placed a fresh beer in front of me and smiled.

“This one’s on me,” she said.


M.L. said...

Nice work, Mike. Love this story, and the 'lessons learned'.

Mike Misner said...

Thanks ML, interesting experience to say the least.

William Evans said...

The sea level at his place has not changed because he keeps building his hill a bit higher. Duh...