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Comment: Plenty of common ground in climate debate

How can those who believe in climate change convince climate-change deniers to change their minds? Often, they can’t. But between the two widely separated sides is plenty of room for common ground.

How can those who believe in climate change convince climate-change deniers to change their minds? Often, they can’t. But between the two widely separated sides is plenty of room for common ground.

There’s an increasing gulf in opinion between those who accept the science of climate change and those who do not. Each side is becoming increasingly hardened in their respective views.

Those of us who work in the domain of environmental sustainability frequently ask how the accepters of climate science can change the minds of the stubborn and mostly untrained deniers. Do the latter need more facts? Simpler explanations? Better and more engaging multimedia presentations?

Many of us have grown red in the face debating those who are treated, regrettably, as ideological adversaries. Condescension and frustration abound.

Recent debates that I’ve had with two family members who criticize climate science — my half-brother and an uncle — have forced me to rethink how climate-change accepters should go about discussing climate change with the skeptics.

My original tactics were to undermine and deconstruct the arguments of my brother and uncle, neither of whom have degrees in environmental or Earth and atmospheric science. My brother contends that climate science is contradictory and ambiguous and has doubts about the reality of the greenhouse-gas effect. My uncle, for his part, accepts the greenhouse-gas effect, but argues that sunspot activity and volcanic eruptions are the primary driver of climate change, which, in any case, has been greatly exaggerated.

My repeated attempts to counter these arguments, based on the latest climate science, from the writings of James Hansen to the IPCC reports, went nowhere. In the case of my brother, I even had a PhD climate scientist write him an email and offer to answer his questions directly. He declined to engage. A stalemate ensued.

I eventually realized that once we set aside the question of anthropocentric climate change and moved beyond temperatures, we found tremendous commonality in the belief that global societies need to curb emissions and increase domestically produced renewable energies. The climate-change question had fogged over our deeper accord.

So how should the accepters talk about climate change with the skeptics? It’s simple. They shouldn’t. There’s no point in engaging in an ideological struggle that sets back efforts to find pathways to a sustainable society.

Once I made this realization, I turned the debates to other issues in environmental science, energy, and geo-politics, and here I found that my relatives and I could agree on many reasons to decrease emissions, decrease energy consumption and increase the production of domestic renewables, without arguing about climate change.

For instance, my uncle accepts these scientific realities:

• Unprecedented levels of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation are the primary reason that the world’s oceans have become increasingly acidified.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the pH of surface ocean waters has fallen by 0.1 pH units since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and oceans will continue to absorb quite a lot of carbon dioxide emissions, becoming increasingly acidic. This acidification threatens the sea life upon which at least one billion humans rely for essential sustenance.

• Acid rain is a real phenomenon caused by the release of sulphur dioxide and other compounds from coal-fired power plants and additional human-generated emissions. Acid rain has numerous adverse effects on waterways, trees and ecosystems.

• Air pollution is a serious threat to human well-being and is caused primarily by industrial and automobile emissions and other human activities. My uncle accepts the World Health Organization’s recent findings that, in 2012, one in eight of all deaths worldwide were linked to air pollution, which causes or exacerbates respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

My brother accepts a lot of this science, too, but is even more passionate in his belief that the long-term power and stability of North America rests upon the U.S. and Canada’s ability to produce their own energy via low-impact, renewable resources. For him, it’s more of a question of geopolitics than it is a question of environmental degradation.

Does it matter that people such as my uncle and brother deny the science of climate change? Perhaps. But my experience shows that there are at least four environmental and political realities not related to climate change around which the accepters and skeptics can bond.

At the end of the day, my uncle, my brother and I all believe that emissions from fossil fuels must be reduced and that countries should produce their own safe, low-impact, renewable energies. We all believe in the basic concept of a sustainable society. And we didn’t need the science of climate change to reach that consensus.

Prof. Jeremy L. Caradonna teaches history at the University of Alberta and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, and is the author of Sustainability: A History.