Cooling Down Conversations on Climate Change

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of extremes and balances but of constructiveness.  Welcome to a journey into a wondrous land limited only by the mind.  Your next stop: the Midmorning Zone.  

Rejoin our friends A and B as they discuss what they think about the topic of climate change, and what approaches the situation might call for. They start their discussion with two different sets of assumptions and priorities. 

In the world you’re familiar with, such a conversation would consist of several hours of back-and-forth statistics and dismissals, ultimately leading nowhere.  A and B are different, though, and the conversation between our two traveling companions will lead us through… the Midmorning Zone.  

A: We need to take measures to stop climate change immediately.  If we don’t, it will cause huge problems in the future.  

B: I agree that it would be bad if the climate changes too much.  We don’t want massive droughts, storms, flooding, et cetera.  However, I’m not sure I see the urgency.  Can’t we take steps once the climate starts becoming intolerable? 

A: I see two problems with that approach.  The first is an ethical problem: allowing the climate to change until we get uncomfortable means people in poorer, more agriculturally and logistically vulnerable regions of the world will still suffer until we do something.  Meanwhile the rich, industrial nations that caused the problem in the first place would profit from selling those other regions the resources to cope with it, if they can cope at all.  That doesn’t seem fair.  

B: Granted.  What’s the other problem?  

A: The other problem is a practical one.  Climate isn’t like a thermostat, where you can dial it up and down whenever you want by controlling carbon emissions.  It’s a collection of stable equilibrium states.  

B: Equilibrium states?  You mean the forces of nature are balanced against each other?  

A: Sort of, but not like walking a tightrope–that’s an unstable equilibrium, where one shove would send the tightrope walker crashing down.  A stable equilibrium is more like a wagon between two hills.  If you give it a shove, it’ll roll partway up one of the hills, but then it will roll back down, and maybe roll up the other hill a bit, and then back down, going back and forth until it comes to a stop in the middle.  

B: Okay, so a single shove won’t hurt; it’ll eventually end up back where it started.  That does sound stable, and convenient for us.  Why are you worried, then?  

A: I’m worried because pumping more and more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is like constantly pushing the wagon farther and farther up one of the hills, without giving it a chance to roll back down.  If we keep doing that, the wagon will reach the top, and then it will roll down the other side, to a stable equilibrium we don’t want to be in.  It might even just keep rolling on and on if nothing stops it.  It will be very difficult pushing the wagon back up the far side of the hill so that it can roll back down to where we started from–especially if the far side of the hill turns out to be a cliff.  

B: I agree that would be bad.  So you’re saying that once the global average temperature reaches a certain level, we can’t just start removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere at that point?  Some other parts of the Earth’s climate system will already have changed enough that we’ll have to deal with them, too?  

A: Yes, exactly.  And we don’t know how much it will cost, if it’s even possible.  That’s why it should be a top priority to avoid shifting the planet out of its current equilibrium state.  

B: Thanks, I understand now why you’re so concerned about the climate changing.  However, I’m still not sure we’re going to reach that point anytime soon.  You’ve been talking about it for a while and your predictions keep changing.  

A: That’s a fair point. I apologize for not acknowledging when my predictions were wrong.  I realize it diminishes my credibility.  That said, I do think that losing the current climate equilibrium is enough of a risk that we should err on the side of caution.  It’s like firearm safety, and how you’re supposed to treat a firearm as loaded even if you know it’s not.  

B: I see your point about safety precautions.  However, it doesn’t cost anything to treat a firearm with respect, whereas addressing climate change would be very expensive.  

A: Yes, it may be expensive to address climate change, but if we don’t, the consequences will be even higher than one person accidentally getting shot.  Scientists’ predictions may have been wrong about when the global temperature will get too high, but the raw evidence makes it seem very likely that it will happen in the foreseeable future, and that seems reason enough to act now to prepare.  As I see it, it’s just the responsible thing to do.

B: I do appreciate responsibility.  However, I’m still unconvinced that climate change is a likely enough issue that we need to take action.  I’ve seen studies that indicate there isn’t actually an imminent problem, leading me to doubt that we need to change directions anytime soon.  To me, the evidence they present seems pretty solid.  

A: As far as evidence against climate change goes, keep in mind that companies in any big industry have a vested interest in keeping anyone from interfering in whatever they do, no matter the to others.  Corporations succeeded for decades at preventing the general public from recognizing the damage that leaded gasoline was doing to public health.  We’ve seen the same stories play out with radium and asbestos.  Maybe you’re right, and big industries aren’t influencing the climate towards a point of no return.  If they were, though, would you really trust them not to try and cover it up?  For me, that strains the limits of optimism. 

B: That is a reasonable point.  By the same token, though, scientists who make a living pushing the idea of climate change have a vested interest in people believing their data.  They make money writing and talking about catastrophe, and they’re backed by the people who would benefit from the large economic changes they’re calling for, including corporations dealing in alternative energy technology like solar and wind power.  How do we know whom to trust?  

A: Hmmm…  That’s also a reasonable point.  We’re running into the principal-agent problem here: how do we know any agent who claims expertise will honorably serve the interests of the principal–in this case, the rest of us?  All science-based policy has this issue.  It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to become a scientific expert in every field, but at some point we as a society need to at least be able to judge the quality of scientific methodology, even if we couldn’t come up with it ourselves.  We need to learn how to ask the right questions to tell the difference between good scientific practice and bad.  After all, it’s supposed to be easier to criticize than to create. A person can review a book or movie even if they couldn’t write one themselves.  We just need people to become armchair scientists so they can hold the professional scientists accountable.  

B: That might still be asking too much.  Not everyone has the time or inclination to be an armchair scientist.  But maybe everyone could have a friend who is.  Perhaps people should start making friends across different backgrounds.  Everyone could have at least a few friends who are more scientifically literate in various fields, and the people who read and evaluate scientific research should have friends among the communities they’re trying to help with that knowledge.  

A: That sounds like a good future to work towards.  In the meantime, though, since we don’t have that trust built up, let’s look at the situation in a way that doesn’t require trust.  We can go back to the issue of responsibility.  Let’s assume that climate change isn’t even all that likely, but that it’s still a distinct possibility.  We deal with risks like that all the time.  It’s unlikely that a house will catch fire, but we still keep smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.  We still do inspections and drills.  Buildings are required to meet fire code requirements even though it makes their construction more expensive.  Why would we not take safety precautions for the world itself?  

B: Fire codes are much more closed-ended than the changes people are calling for to address the possibility of climate change.  Those sweeping changes have a lot of consequences and we don’t even know where they end or what other side effects they’ll have.  

A: That’s a good point.  We need to be specific and honest with our criteria.  What measures would we take, in what circumstances?  What do we hope those measures would accomplish?  How confident are we in the anticipated results?  We can’t build trust without being upfront and transparent.  That transparency goes both ways, though.  What point would the climate have to reach before we decided we needed to change?  Could we even do it in time if we put it off so long?  How hard would we actually try?  Who or what might we have to sacrifice?  Do we really want to deny any need to change up until we have no choice?  Or do we want to take the proactive approach and prevent problems in advance?  

B: Alright, I’m still not 100% convinced of the scientific predictions that you subscribe to, but you’ve introduced some legitimate doubts about how well our current approach will work out for us.  After all, just because something has never happened before doesn’t mean it can never happen. I am interested in hearing about preventative measures to keep the climate from changing beyond what we can handle.  I’d be more inclined to support those preventative measures if you could address some concerns that I have about them.  Part of the problem is that society still has immediate needs that make it difficult to change the status quo.  

A: Thanks, I appreciate that.  In response to immediate concerns that make change difficult, isn’t that all the more reason why we should start working out the steps towards change now, before the issue becomes immediate and even more painful?  If we can’t change the status quo quickly, we need to at least start sooner rather than later.  If we wait until we reach the intersection to start applying the brakes, it’s already too late.  

B: Yes, it seems clear now that we should make sure it’s at least possible for society to put serious proactive effort into addressing problems, even if I’m not sure that climate change is one of those problems.  Furthermore, the less of a burden these efforts are for society, the more willing I’d be to see them spent on addressing possibilities like climate change.  After all, we agree that climate change would have terrible consequences.  We just disagree on how likely it is to actually happen.  If we could reduce what it costs society to take preventative measures against it, I might go along with those measures.  When the price of safety comes down, that’s when more people are willing to invest in preparing for more and more unlikely possibilities.  If you sold pocket devices that stopped people from getting struck by lightning for just a dollar, there’d be people lining up to buy them.  

A: That makes sense.  If we can offset any disruptions our preventative measures may cause, people will be more willing to support them even if they’re less certain about climate change.  That sounds good to me!  I think we can work with that.  

B: Exactly.  So here is my concern about how we would go about addressing climate change as a society: it’s important to avoid hurting the economy any more than we absolutely have to.  Much of the carbon emissions you’re worried about come from manufacturing and transportation, and those sectors of the economy support enormous amounts of commerce.  Reducing those activities would impact people’s ability to get what they need.  It would make things more expensive, and that would kill many jobs.  Job losses in turn would mean less consumer spending, putting even more people out of work and cascading us into a depression.  

A: Can’t people in those sectors just find new jobs?  Job opportunities will be popping up in sustainable energy.  Nuclear power plants should be expanding as well, since nuclear energy will be a huge help while we’re transitioning away from fossil fuels.  

B: Changing careers is not that easy for most people.  It’s even worse with sector shifts: a whole sector of the economy becomes obsolete and everyone in that sector needs to change jobs all at once.  It takes years to train for any job you can support your family on, and all those people still have to compete for new jobs with each other and with young people just entering the job market. Most people don’t have a whole lot saved up to spend on training and on feeding their family while they’re out of work, nor do we want them to have to do that.  They should be able to spend money on what they want and need in the present without worrying about what happens if their job suddenly stops existing.  

A: Okay, I can see why they’d want to keep their jobs.  I guess the economy and the environment are more similar than I realized: we can’t make big changes to them and just assume they’ll turn out okay.  However, it seems unacceptable to me that a sector shift towards technology that’s more advanced or safer or more sustainable would hurt people.  We don’t want people to be hurt by progress, and not just because then they’d try to stop it.  Progress should help everyone.  What can we do to keep moving forward technologically but not hurt people in the process?  

B: Well, to help people deal with economic sector shifts, we might need to change how people train for careers.  First, people need more generalizable skills that they can quickly calibrate to a number of different contexts.  Second, they’d need the ability to find new jobs that pay them enough, and train for them as quickly as possible.  Third, they’d need to be able to survive in the meantime while they’re training as well, with both money and healthcare.  

A: That makes sense to me.  I do want to keep the economy as strong as possible.  In addition to equipping people with more generalizable skills as you mentioned before, I suggest setting up universal basic income.  That’s another conversation in and of itself, but in the context of climate change it means people would have enough to live on while they train for another career, and a supplement to their wages if they start at a lower pay rate than they had before.  

B: Wouldn’t free money result in most people doing nothing?  

A: On its own, it might.  Right now a lot of people work because they’re forced to financially, so once they lose that economic coercion they may not have a reason to work.  However, we’ll be shifting culture as well.  There’s other reasons to work besides the threat of starvation.  You might actually enjoy the job and want to contribute to society.  Or you could work part-time to make some extra money while still spending time on what you want.  If a job is particularly unpleasant, then it should pay more so that people are willing to do it.  In general, people will be more willing to work when they are free to contribute on their own terms and have a stronger place to negotiate for better working conditions with companies who want employees.  

B: Alright, that sounds decent enough for now.  We can go into more detail about how to make that work later.  What else do you suggest?  

A: It’d be good if worker-owned co-ops could replace the top-down hierarchy and shareholder obligations of corporations.  That would result in more equitable distribution of profits, and decisions would be made by the workers themselves.  

B: Would that result in them being more environmentally friendly, though?  

A: More than when the corporation is required to maximize shareholder profit each quarter, at least.  The members of a co-op are more likely to pay attention to the employees’ careers in the long term than an executive board looking out for their own jobs.  

B: Considering how the ability to sell stocks is an important option for a company to raise revenue, I think we’ll have to figure out the pros and cons of co-ops another time.  Anything else?  

A: Oh, we’ll need to deal with health insurance.  Right now all sorts of benefits are tied to employers.  Health insurance and the cost of medical care will be another conversation as well, but it seems like we could at least make insurance portable, so that you can keep it even when you leave a company, as long as you pay for it.  There’s already a federal law in the United States, called COBRA, which allows you to keep health insurance for several months after you leave the company, if the company is large enough to be subject to that rule.  Is there a reason we couldn’t just extend that coverage indefinitely?  

B: That’s definitely something to look into.  Like you said, healthcare is another conversation in and of itself, but at least we’re on the right track.  It looks like the main practical barriers to addressing climate change are economic and labor-related, so we’ll need to rethink some of our economic and labor policies.  So the first things we’re investigating are universal basic income, maybe more co-ops over corporations, and portable health insurance.  

A: Yeah, those are good places to start.  Plus making sure people are trained with generalizable skills, like you mentioned.  

B: Ah, yes.  Education is yet another conversation we’ll have to have.  These are all issues worth tackling in their own right, though, so I’m glad we’re finally talking about them.  

A: Me, too.  Once we have an idea of what constructive policies look like, I think you’ll find them to be well worth the investment.  

B: I’ll look forward to it! 

Your host, the author: This conversation was brought to you by the Foundational Toolbox for Life, a system of basic concepts for framing problems and solutions constructively.  A and B have just demonstrated its use here as part of the Visionary Vocabularies project to help people go beyond arguing over tradeoffs and instead work together to build a world we can all be proud of.  

As the Toolbox becomes more widely used, conversations such as the one you just read will become our reality, and lead the way out of the confused, belligerent, flailing dawn of humanity into a thoughtful, neighborly, confident 9:30 or 10 AM.  You, too, can be part of ushering in the end of humanity’s protracted and painful beginning.  Tell your friends about your visit here and let them know that the planet Earth is late for brunch… in the Midmorning Zone.