Restoring civility in conversations about climate change


    Skepticism is healthy.  It can be a sign of doing your own thinking.  But when it’s based on something other than fact, it’s not healthy. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” 

     This White Paper’s intent is to present, in plain language, some mainstream scientific facts about climate change that have been endorsed by 180 governments around the world; to frame those facts in context of what has happened over the past decade and is likely to happen in the future; and to lay out a blueprint for civil conversations among non-scientists on climate change.  It does not present anything beyond established science, nor train anyone to speak to crowds or the media, nor exceed its aim of encouraging civil, informed, face-to-face conversations in everyday places like living rooms and over the back fence, among neighbors.  The goal is to reach people who usually avoid this topic, who don’t like listening to overwhelmingly technical talk, who want to do something positive, and who might take the time to learn more, if readable sources are assembled in one place.

     Much of the current discussion on climate change is in the form of emotionally contagious shouting, which leads to a newly coined symptom called “rage fatigue,” which leads to apathy.  That’s not acceptable in vibrant civil societies.  Especially when the issue’s as important as this.  A group of ordinary citizens in Washington State decided to do something about it. We call ourselves the Citizens Roundtable.  We’re neither climate physicists nor meteorologists nor politicians, but we know what good communication looks like.  We know how to check information sources.  And we know that there’s a lot of bad communication out there, discrediting established science and causing confusion.  These ideas were created in living rooms, not offices.

     Part 1 contains two essays to help put things in context.  

     Part 2 contains short messages, quick backup facts, and suggestions for lowering defensiveness.  

 In Part 3, the Appendices, you’ll find details, deeper background, and an extensive list of sources, references and links.  

     If you have only time enough to rip and read the Main Messages and their Quick Facts, then tear out or print Part 2 and you will still have a basic frame from which to talk.  All sources used in this paper are cited, with many hyperlinks.  These sources have been extremely helpful to us, and we hope they provide you with insights. We hope Citizens Roundtables will spring up in other places.  

     George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “frames are the mental structures that shape the way we see the world.  In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.” 

     We need to be able to frame what it will mean to the world if warming the atmosphere with human-caused greenhouse gases destabilizes our climate.  We need to remove the spin, re-engage our communities, and have a healthy dialogue.  And we need to act.  There is no greater threat to our way of life (or life itself) than the wrecking of our climate.  We need to create a national conversation on climate change, one where everyone can participate, one that is respectful and civil but also honest; one that gives ordinary people the chance to learn and the authority to speak up without fear of being shouted down. 

     We need an approach that cuts through the rhetoric to the facts as the majority of the world’s scientists understand them. We must empower ourselves as citizen participants, who insist that our local, state and national governments act immediately to reduce carbon emissions.  We must be able to refute with confidence the unfounded arguments against long-established science.  At the same time, we need to listen with empathy to concerns shared by others. 

     This White Paper is just a beginning.  It acknowledges that this is a moral issue, and advocates that to not act now to ensure a stable climate for future generations will put them at great risk.