Yes, Climate Skeptics Can Change

Photo Credit: christine zenino via Flickr/CC BY

Attempting to convince a climate change skeptic that human activity is causing the planet to warm is often viewed as a Sisyphean task -- since that skepticism is most often more rooted in political ideology than a view of the science itself, it can quickly devolve into a thankless war of words. Try as you might to construct the most rational, scientifically sound, evidence-backed argument, it's all apt to come to a screeching halt over ad hominem attacks on Al Gore or the scientists themselves, contention over a scientific point that's inadequately understood by both parties, or so forth.

Which is why there's very little actual exchange between the two camps -- and so one group continues to get its news from outlets tailored to a world where climate change isn't real, a la Fox News, and the other gets drawn to the other pole, and gets lumped into the progressive sphere. And rarely do the two intersect. But it is possible: even ideologically committed conservatives and climate change-denying Republicans can change their ways. Here's proof. It's in the form of a fascinating op-ed at the conservative blog FrumForum, called Confessions of a Climate Change Convert, where D.R. Tucker, a Republican and one-time climate skeptic writes the following:

I was defeated by facts.

It wasn't all that long ago when I joined others on the right in dismissing concerns about climate change. It was my firm belief that the science was unsettled, that any movement associated with Al Gore and Van Jones couldn't possibly be trusted, that environmentalists were simply left-wing, anti-capitalist kooks. It wasn't until after I read Stanford University professor Morris Fiorina's book Disconnect (2009) that I started to reconsider things.

The biggest selling point was evidently the fact that environmentalism once used to be the province of conservatives -- it was, of course, once a deeply red belief that wildlife and ecosystems should be preserved for future generations. This is worth noting, as the current ideological polarization has created an apparent divide between left and right over the environment -- Republican politicians, are so staunchly anti-regulation, anti-environmental protection and pro-corporate that we couldn't imagine anyone who cares about that environment supporting them. But millions do. And if the facts were better separated from the political dogma (if anyone has any new ideas on that front, I'm all ears), perhaps we'd have more success stories like this:

Tucker's friends suggested he read the 2007 IPCC Assessment Report, and he did.

I began reading the report with a skeptical eye, but by the time I concluded I could not find anything to justify my skepticism ... I came away from the report convinced that climate alteration poses a critical threat to our health and way of life, and that "policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon" are in fact necessary, from an economic and a moral standpoint, to mitigate that threat. Such policies--most notably the much-maligned concept of cap-and-trade--should not be considered job-killers but life-savers.

In the months following my acceptance of the conclusions in the IPCC report, I've had a change in my emotional climate. I go back and forth between disappointment and hope--sadness over seeing Republicans who once believed in the threat of climate change (such as Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty) suddenly turn into skeptics; optimism about efforts by such groups as Republicans for Environmental Protection and Citizens Climate Lobby to sound the alarm about the need to combat climate pollution. I struggle with the urge to give in to cynicism and bitterness, to write off the American right for its refusal to recognize scientific facts. Thankfully, there's a stronger urge--an urge to keep working until the American right recognizes that a healthy planet is required to have the life and liberty that allows us to pursue happiness.

For a climate blogger who's spent years butting heads with skeptics, this is pretty inspiring stuff. Now, we can't expect to win over most deniers by handing them a copy of an IPCC report -- but I do think it's important to note that what we see happening here is likely to start happening with greater frequency down the line: facts winning the day. It's going to get harder to ignore climate change, disprove the fact that global temperature keeps rising, droughts keep worsening, etc.

But we still need to find a better way to get those facts into the spotlight, and fast.

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Tags: Global Climate Change

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