A funny thing happens when you’re sitting with friends at a restaurant and people start to talk about ecology. Somewhere between the appetizer and the second round of drinks, the ideas of “taking care of the environment” and “global warming” get conflated. A conversation about trash gyres, oil spills, or flattened rainforests quickly morphs into a conversation about rising CO2 levels in the earth’s atmosphere.
There are three major problems with this: 1) the two issues aren’t exactly the same and 2) talking about climate change requires a higher baseline knowledge than talking about how it’s a shit idea to have plastic bags floating in the ocean, and therefore 3) many of these conversations quickly devolve.
Perhaps the even bigger issue is that climate change (and science in general) have somehow become highly politicized. It’s a thing that some people believe in and others don’t — hotly debated (even if 97% of scientists are on one side of the debate). Ecological damage to our planet, by comparison, isn’t up for discussion. We have footage, we have pictures, we can see its effects — right now — literally everywhere. (The same is true for climate change, but people don’t really know how to parse pictures of melting ice.)
Which is why, if you believe in stewardship and care for our planet, maybe you shouldn’t even bother with arguing over global warming. Not unless you really know the science and can break it down in detail for the sort of person who might shout over you, “It’s freezing and snowing in New York — we need global warming!”
Maybe the answer — when the debate over ecology gets mired in the shaky scientific knowledge of non-scientists — is to shrug and say, “Okay, let’s say global warming doesn’t exist. Do you want to take care of the planet, or not? Can you agree that having the planet in good condition is a good thing?”
Because that’s perhaps the biggest question we can ask ourselves, unless we are real-live climate scientists: “Are we going to be protectors of this earth?”
What makes this all a relevant discussion point today is that modern conservatives in general, and Donald Trump in specific, seem to have altogether abandoned the idea of conservation, environmentalism, and even love of wild spaces (once ideals of the Republican party) simply because they’re also skeptical about global warming.
Let’s look the April 26 announcement that Trump will review public lands that were designated since 1996 — the year after the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change first offered a consensus statement that humans are responsible for increased C02 in the atmosphere. The choice to evaluate these protected areas, by all accounts, was influenced by Utah senator Orrin Hatch who seems to take particular umbrage with Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, created by Bill Clinton.
Hatch, who does not believe that humans drive climate change, has made it very clear that he wants Utah’s land opened up to drilling and mining concerns. His push to repeal environmental protections has been opposed by the outdoor industry and anyone with a solid handle on the ancillary economic benefits of outdoor recreation.
For people like Hatch and Trump, the idea that climate change is being debated is something of a smoke screen. By getting us all tangled in the C02 briar patch, they’re able to shift the conversation away from it’s simplest resting place: Taking care of our land (and our planet) makes sense on every level. Instead, Hatch and those like him are able to say things like this:
“Though it is not widely covered in the media, there is considerable debate within the scientific community regarding the theory of anthropogenic global warming. The United Nations Panel on Intergovernmental Climate Change bases its theory of AGW on a number of assumptions. The validity of these assumptions continues to be the basis for the debate surrounding global warming.”
Which is a word jumble with no actual facts behind it. It’s murky and quasi-intellectual. Better instead to force the senator to talk about stewardship — particularly because his state has deeply benefitted from it.
A timeworn trick of rhetoric is to shift the whole topic of the argument. It’s effective because distraction is effective; because overwhelming people with things slightly out of their core knowledge base is effective. Climate science may be relatively straightforward, but it’s not particularly easy for the layperson to explain. Which is why it’s not a playing field we should let anti-environmentalists drag us onto. It allows them to seem thoughtful, without actually being intellectually brave.
Instead, there’s a bigger question amid rampant EPA rollbacks and Trump’s dream of regulations as loose as elephant skin: “Do we want to take care of the earth or not?” To protect or not to protect, this is the question.
Earlier this month, The Heartland Institute — a conservative think tank that operates very much like the president’s Twitter feed by creating doubt without offering accountability — sent books to 200,000 science teachers around the country. The book was titled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” and hems pretty close to fake news, claiming that climate change is based to a fair degree on the “writings of a wacky Australian blogger.” The National Science Teachers Association warned that it was an “unprecedented attack.”
The book was a smokescreen, hoping to confound teachers. It was an attempt to open up debate and obfuscate the entire “environmental issue.” And obfuscation is a win for anti-environmentalists — just look at how vague so many of their arguments are. Scientists (and Bill Nye) will fight against this obfuscation and force people like Hatch and Trump to debate over real science with real sentences that have actual content. But for the lay person, perhaps the key is to reframe the debate. To ask the very potent questions: “Do you think we should take care of our land? Our air? Our water?”
“Forget climate change* for a second,” we might say to someone trying to muddy what should be a straightforward conversation, “and tell me this: Do you care about preserving this earth to the best of our abilities or not? Does stewardship matter to you at all?”