Talking with the enemy

Our Head of Ethics Research, Dr Stuart Palmer, wonders what motivates climate scepticism, and explains how he’d talk to a climate change denier.

At the end of 2015, an article in The Australian newspaper* by Maurice Newman (one-time business advisor to Tony Abbott) stirred the climate pot by likening world leaders at the Paris COP21 conference to “ancient Druids pleading with the gods for good seasons”. Maurice was particularly critical of the climate policies of developed countries which he said “succumb to propaganda and bullying” and “embrace junk science and junk economics and adopt wealth-destroying postmodern pseudo-economics”.

Maurice’s insights made me wonder how I would approach a backyard BBQ discussion about global warming with someone like him. The result is these suggestions for an imagined conversation with a climate sceptic called Bruce. (Why Bruce? Australia has the highest rate of climate scepticism of developed countries, and sceptics tend to be male.)

I start by trying to understand where Bruce is coming from. Climate sceptics are often strong believers in the power and responsibility of the individual to shape their own destiny. So it could be unsettling for Bruce to accept greenhouse gas impacts beyond his individual control which can degrade his future; or which might require him to help others who through geographical chance are especially exposed to harm from warming. Related to this, many sceptics are libertarians who worry about the integrity or capacity of governments to act in the interests of their citizens. Like Maurice, many are particularly suspicious of international bodies like the United Nations. From this perspective a challenge like climate change is going to be inconvenient when it demands a globally coordinated response.

Bruce’s thinking about climate might also be influenced by his friends and colleagues. It can be uncomfortable entertaining beliefs which are rejected out of hand by your tribe or, even worse, which are advocated by your enemies. We are defined both by the groups we belong to and those we oppose. In his article Maurice doesn’t have much time for Greens or bureaucrats.
Is Bruce a conservative or (small ‘l’) liberal? As he surveys the world, does he cherish the role that tradition and institutions play in the well-functioning of society, or does he embrace variety and change? If the former, his conservative mindset may make it hard for him to accept natural forces which threaten to disrupt existing ways of doing things.

Lastly as I try to understand Bruce I also wonder about Bruce’s general intelligence, although not for the reason you might think. People with high IQs are typically no better than others at seeing the different sides of an issue. They are however better than others at coming up with arguments which support their opinions.

I have these things in mind as I discuss with Bruce his views about the world and its potential warming. I want to talk not only about what he thinks but also how he feels about the possibility of global warming. This helps me understand his thinking, but it will also help him reflect on his own thoughts and feelings, and their relationship to the things and people which he considers important. I learned this approach as a Lifeline telephone counsellor – giving the caller the opportunity to first express their feelings to an empathetic listener allows a clear-headed evaluation of facts and options.

With this groundwork, I can plan my contribution to the conversation. I need to be careful about bombarding Bruce with all my favourite pieces of climate science. If Bruce is already convinced that environmentalists, bureaucrats and scientists are conspiring to fabricate a climate crisis, then my listing of new climate facts might seem like simply more evidence of that conspiracy. Instead I start by comparing the challenges facing the fossil fuel industry to other cases of disruption by new technologies – film cameras by digital cameras, for example. It may be easier for Bruce to talk about a looming expiry date for fossil fuels if this is seen as an outcome of a market driven process of ‘creative destruction’ rather than a result of green activist campaigning.

Bruce and I then discuss some interesting work on geoengineering technologies which could mitigate the warming effect of greenhouse gases. We also talk about market pricing of scarce natural resources and of the right to emit carbon, and about other market mechanisms to help drive innovation to manage the Earth’s finite natural capital. We even venture onto the merits of carbon capture and storage, and nuclear energy. These topics I find make it easier for Bruce to countenance global warming because they suggest ways in which market driven innovation might help address climate change without the need for the more centralised and collectivist world order which Bruce fears. (Read more on the impact of information about geoengineering here:

As I’ve analysed Bruce I’ve probably sounded smugly certain of my own climate objectivity. But of course to prepare for our discussion I also need to understand where my own thinking about climate change is coming from. I pat myself on the back for being on the right side of the science, but I realise that many of my views about people and the world already incline me to be accepting of the climate consensus. I need to beware that we often defend packages of ideas which fit conveniently together, and that this can be unhelpful in discussions between people who have signed up to different packages. Some people reading this article who recognise the need for urgent action to limit global warming may have felt uncomfortable that I would raise with Bruce geoengineering, market pricing of nature, carbon capture, and nuclear energy. I agree there are good reasons for concern about the role these things might play in a response to global warming. But we should recognise that their advantages and disadvantages are independent of the question of human causation of global warming, and they should not simply be accepted or rejected as a package deal of beliefs about climate change. Also the fact that Bruce and I have different starting points on many questions related to climate change should not stop us seeing the many beliefs and interests we share.

Finding some starting common ground is the first thing we should do in climate (and other) debates. Bruce and I both belong to a tribe which cares about the future for the world’s children. Surely with such a sound foundation we can have a productive discussion about how to secure that future.


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