Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Misuse of the Word "Skeptic", and a Useful Book by Atmospheric Scientist Katharine Hayhoe

One of my pet peeves in journalism is the misuse of the word "skeptic" when discussing climate change. A recent example comes from columnist Margaret Renkl's opinion piece entitled "How to Talk About 'Extreme Weather' With Your Angry Uncle." In the essay, she repeatedly refers to "climate skeptics." But a true skeptic directs skepticism inward as well as outward--something that scientists are trained to do. People tend to associate skepticism with tough-mindedness, as in someone who refuses to accept mainstream belief unthinkingly. But the skepticism directed at climate science is one-way and self-serving--another example of the rightwing being tough on others, soft on self. It takes a tough mind to deal with unsettling realities, in this case the reality that people, by and large good and well-intentioned, are nonetheless collectively responsible for the radicalization of weather and the steady loss of our nation's sweet spot in the world's climate. 

The "angry uncle" in the title of Renkl's opinion piece might be angry because he has been encouraged to always look for blame and falsity in others, while leaving his own views unexamined. Much of the political polarization that tears at the fabric of personal relationships and the nation is artificial, sustained by misinformation and a refusal to vet one's own beliefs to see if they stand up to the facts. 

I doubt that anyone is going to get very far, talking to an angry uncle. Righteous anger is, I'm sure, a delicious feeling that would be hard to let go of. Perhaps, though, one could start by agreeing that fossil fuels are extraordinary in their power and convenience, and it would be a wonderful world if we could continue burning them without negative consequence. Maybe explore other things we really wish were true. 

It should not be too much to ask, however, for the angry uncle, so quick to attack, to direct as much skepticism inward as outward, especially at views that 1) flatter the self, and 2) let us off the hook. 

In her opinion essay, Margaret Renkl goes on to discuss a new book by Katharine Hayhoe, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, so is better positioned than most to view climate change from multiple perspectives. One of the blurbs about the book says this:

“An optimistic view on why collective action is still possible—and how it can be realized.” —The New York Times

Therein lies another false notion: that we are not now acting collectively. The frustration and tragedy of our era is that we are currently acting collectively to create problems, but are being denied the opportunity to collectively solve them. A distinction must be made between intentional and unintentional collective action. Though it is not our intention, we are in fact acting collectively to create problems in the world, one of which is climate change. Each one of us is highly equipped with machines that require the burning of carbon-based fuels. They are, day to day, truly marvelous machines, keeping us comfortable, taking us where we want to go. Yet every time we as individuals use them, we are also contributing to the radicalization of weather. Despite a lack of intention, the sum of each individual's actions has proven transformative. The machines we use have collectively increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in that deceptively thin layer of atmosphere above us by 50%, with dramatic consequences for our collective future.  

Renkl states that many conservatives are convinced that "doing right by the environment will involve pain, a complete repudiation of their current lives, or both." In fact, doing wrong by the environment is the source of the radical changes we see in weather across the nation--changes that threaten the very lifestyle we seek to sustain. 

One feature of Amazon that I really appreciate is the "look inside" feature that allows you to read a sample portion of a book. A brief reading of Hayhoe's "Saving Us" shows it to be very well written and an excellent book for our times. Interestingly, Hayhoe avoid's Renkl's "climate skeptics" terminology in favor of "dismissives"--a term Hayhoe uses to refer to the 7% of people whose glee in rejecting climate science and ridiculing climate advocates makes them "nearly impossible to have a positive conversation with." Though the NY Times opinion piece is entitled "How to Talk About 'Extreme Weather' With Your Angry Uncle," Hayhoe gave up trying to talk to her own angry uncle, and instead finds hope in the potential to engage positively with the other 93% of humanity. 

One big question is how to sustain people's self-esteem even as they become aware of how each one of us is contributing to the existential threat of climate change. Hayhoe appears to address this in chapters about fear and guilt, and gives advice on how to navigate the perilous waters of tribalism and identity to find common ground. Here's a useful quote from Renkl's essay:

First, undercut the politics. Becoming a climate activist doesn’t require changing political parties or renouncing long-held values. “It’s really a matter of showing people that they are already the perfect person to care because of who they are, and that climate action would be an even more genuine expression of their identity,” said Dr. Hayhoe. “It’s about holding up a mirror and reminding people that they want to be a good steward, that they want a better future. That’s when we see change.”

The book also grapples with the question of whether individual action or structural change is needed. Hayhoe's answer is "both." 

Thanks to Renkl for getting the word out about Hayhoe's very useful and readable book, but please, stop using misleading terms like "climate skeptic."

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