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In the Midst of Climate Change, Can We All Just Get Along?

Can we all just get along?

This plea, famously uttered by the late Rodney King in a TV appearance during the eponymous riots in Los Angeles 20 years ago, is as relevant to the climate change debate as it then was to the social inequity debate.

The Fall 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review is dedicated to the notion that climate science has in fact become a cultural war. The article notes that the public debate around climate change is no longer a scientific exploration – but rather a struggle over values, culture and ideology.

The science is clear. And, just in case we needed further evidence, with the recent publication of the results of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) Project Professor Richard Muller, a physicist and climatechange skeptic, has declared himself converted. Interestingly, this project was funded in large part by the Charles G Koch Foundation, established by the billionaire US coal magnate who is the key backer of the climate-change skeptic Heartland Institute think tank. Indeed, in the spirit of the newly converted, this report not only finds that climate change is real, but concludes that it is likely all attributable to the human emission of greenhouse gases.

So why are we still not doing anything about it? Why are there still so many people who choose to deny, contradict and scoff at the evidence? Why are we not seeing society changing behaviors and instructing its governments and marketplaces to make different choices to avoid undesirable consequences?

Because we’re human. And humans, notoriously, are not rational creatures.

We need look no further than the advertising industry – experts in the manipulation of all that triggers behavior change in humans. They don’t deal in facts, in threats, in dire warnings. They deal in aspiration, desire, self-interest, ego and nostalgia. And it works.

So, as uncomfortable as it may be to we practical types who plan, design, build, and measure, our drive for rationality may be the greatest barrier to communicating with audiences who think emotionally. As creators of the built environment we have a tendency to believe that audience members who do not take our design sensibilities seriously, who do not appear to care about environmental concerns, are either ill-informed, ill-intended or both. Regardless of the audience’s education, level of interest or stake in the issue, it is not their responsibility to understand us. It is our responsibility to make ourselves understood.

It is long overdue that we start paying more attention to our humanities colleagues who analyze, sympathize and empathize.

The most successful developments that catch my eye today are the ones that emerge from a collaborative process that engages the entire community in the solution. This is true whether we are looking at infrastructure investment in East London or a new water well in rural Ethiopia. The very best projects begin by listening to community needs and desires and taking the time to understand what must to change if their project is to have the best chance of success.

In this scenario, projects fulfill a private (personal) need at the same time as they fulfill a public (societal) need. This is evidenced by the testimony of happy residents who enjoy the health benefits and social interaction afforded by a walkable, green neighborhood where their children can safely play. Or by the proud mother, now a skilled water technician, who watches her daughter walk to school every day instead of walking five miles to the nearest (dirty) water source.

Our duty then, is not to preach climate change from the rooftops, but to work with communities, to try and help them figure out what to do today to get the future they want tomorrow. There are always barriers. But these barriers are emotional, not physical. We must begin with the understanding that everyone is acting rationally from his or her perspective. From there we must find the right way to communicate understanding, demonstrate responsiveness to concerns and needs, and offer a vision of a future that will meet not only their needs, but the needs of generations to come.

We cannot wait for consensus (and I speak as one who bears the deep scar tissue from my days as the former Planning Director of Seattle) but we can achieve informed consent.

Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.

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6 thoughts on “In the Midst of Climate Change, Can We All Just Get Along?

  1. Sorry, but the science is anything but clear.

    Trying to unravel the causes and consequences of climate change is arguably the most complex science ever tackled. Professors Chris Essex (University of Western Ontario, Canada) and Ross McKitrick (University of Guelph, Canada) write in their book Taken by Storm, “Climate is one of the most challenging open problems in modern science. Some knowledgeable scientists believe that the climate problem can never be solved.”

    The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (www.nipccreport.com) demonstrates that much of what we thought we knew about climate is wrong or highly debatable. As I showed the 1,500 students I taught for the past three years at Carleton University in Ottawa, the science is becoming more unsettled as the field advances.

    While it makes sense to prepare for natural climate change—warming and cooling, drought and flood, rising and falling sea levels—as our societies expand, the idea that we know, or even can know, the future of our planet’s climate is simply a modern day myth.


    Tom Harris
    Executive Director
    International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) P.O. Box 23013 Ottawa, Ontario K2A 4E2 Canada


  2. Sorry, but Tom Harris is wrong. For one thing, the science is not “becoming more unsettled as the field advances”. It is only becoming ever clearer with the passage of time and with the continuing advances in the field, and the overwhelming majority of top scientists who agree with the hypothesis of ACC holds steady at around 98%. See here for support for that statement: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.full.
    And let’s briefly examine the opening statements that the NIPCC provides on their own website, to wit:
    “The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) is what its name suggests: an international panel of nongovernment scientists and scholars who have come together to understand the causes and consequences of climate change. Because we are not predisposed to believe climate change is caused by human greenhouse gas emissions, we are able to look at evidence the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ignores. Because we do not work for any governments, we are not biased toward the assumption that greater government activity is necessary.”
    Embedded here is the unproven allegation that the IPCC somehow is predisposed to a belief – and that allegation is demonstrably false. The IPCC has drawn from scientific research published the world over, research results that span decades of time, and results that support as well as results that do not support the tenets of ACC. Their conclusions are based on these wide-ranging scientific inputs; and are not based on any predispositions.
    In addition, the NIPCC suggests that the IPCC is “biased toward the assumption that greater government activity is necessary”; because they ‘work for governments’. This argument is likewise false. In the first place, there is little to no benefit that accrues to any government, by advancing the hypothesis of ACC. In fact, just the opposite: accepting the truth about ACC and formulating governmental and societal responses to deal with it; will only cost governments additional money that they would prefer to spend on other things. Furthermore, the science that the IPCC bases conclusions on; is not performed on behalf of any governments. The science is performed according to the long-standing practices of both scientific and academic freedoms.
    Tom Harris only continues to advance denier obfuscations and allegations; that are outright false, or unproven, or irrelevant to the issues.

  3. “Tom Harris only continues to advance denier obfuscations and allegations; that are outright false, or unproven, or irrelevant to the issues.”

    Yes, that is how those of us who do not go along with political correctness on climate change are often characterized. Smart readers know this is nonsense.

    To cite the IPCC as proof of anything any more is a mistake. Watch this Canadian researcher dismantle the IPCC’s claims of being the opinions of the world’s leaders in the field:


    Tom Harris

  4. Anyone who consistently goes against the scientific consensus of 98%; is going to have a hard time convincing others that they are somehow right while all those scientists are somehow wrong. The science is conducted in an open and peer reviewed fashion; following the centuries-long scientific practice of requiring reproducibility and results being constantly subjected to any criticisms that others may wish to advance. The evidence for, and the tenets of, ACC have been debated, criticized, reviewed, and reproduced by independent researchers; for decades now. The ACC hypothesis and the supporting evidence have clearly withstood this test of time; and have emerged stronger than ever before.

    To claim, without overwhelming supporting evidence, that 98% of top scientists are wrong; does indeed smack of “obfuscations and allegations; that are outright false, or unproven”.

  5. Furthermore, no one is citing the IPCC as proof of anything. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite: The IPCC (and others) are merely citing the independent research conducted by scientists the world over, as evidence in support of ACC. It is the work of hundreds of individual scientists that constitute the bulk of the scientific evidence in favor of the ACC hypothesis – not the work of the IPCC. The IPCC has merely surveyed the body of work and gathered together results into a more comprehensive package. But the science rests of the work of individual scientists, conducted over decades.

  6. Finally, the concept of ‘political correctness’ is not even a part of this issue. Tom Harris only brings it up in an attempt to politicize the debate, and/or to draw attention away from the actual science. The whole topic of ACC is a scientific topic; not a political one. Be careful of relying on smart readers, Tom – they may more easily see through your obfuscations than you realize.

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