The Environmental Movement’s Middle Ground

Finding common ground in the current environmental movement among differing cultural and political beliefs is not so simple.

Environmental Movement

The fractures that snake through our cultural and political landscape are complex, compound fractures, and people on either side of this great divide often find themselves straddling a number of them.

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Climate change has become one of the most polarizing issues of our time. Seamus McGraw breaks the polarity and explores the middle ground of climate change in Betting the Farm on a Drought (The University of Texas Press, 2015), speaking to farmers, ranchers and fisherman who are not ideologically, politically, or even religiously inclined to believe in man-made climate change while also speaking to scientists and policymakers who are trying to bring about change and overcome these  current challenges. This excerpt, from Chapter 2, “Comfortable in Our Ignorance,” discusses the dividing factors that are present among individuals’ perceptions of man-made climate change.

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It was a bitterly cold November evening in one of those off-the-beaten-track towns with cobblestone streets. It was the sort of place where the main street is lined with gingerbread houses and twenty-first-century coffee shops in nineteenth century brick storefronts where you feel like you could almost warm yourself in the glow of their windows.

I had been invited to speak about my own moral ambivalence about the politically charged subject of fracking and climate change at the local bookstore, a dusty, out-of-the-way place with groaning wide-plank floors worn smooth by generations of voracious readers, back in the days when there still was such a thing, the kind of place where even the light from the street seemed to stop to browse as it passed the sagging bookshelves on its way to the back of the store. I jumped at the opportunity.

I’d given a version of that talk a few times before, and it was always controversial. There were always a few in the audience who let me know in no uncertain terms that they believed the whole idea of global warming was a hoax perpetrated by goatskin drum–beating extremists bent on destroying the free enterprise system. They saw it as a thinly veiled plot to bring America’s workers under the sway of a rapacious government that was only barely containing its socialistic lust for other people’s property.

And there were usually a couple of people who saw any concession to the idea that we might have to feel our way slowly out of our carbon addiction as an utter capitulation to a creeping corporate conspiracy hatched by the Koch brothers, Halliburton, Monsanto, and the Scaife Foundations to foul our water with petrochemicals and taint our food with GMOs in order to turn us into zombie slaves willing to watch mutely as they pollute our environment, leave us destitute, and come to my house to snatch my eight-year-old son and work him to death in the twenty-first century version of the same coal breaker my grandfather escaped from a century ago.

I’m usually pretty light on my feet when it comes to these talks. I can generally navigate between these two poles. And I usually am able to find enough shared interests on both sides to show that at least a partial consensus is possible, even if only remotely. I had no reason to doubt that I’d be able to do it there, too.

After all, the folks in that town clearly understood the stakes, I was sure. Just eight weeks earlier, that bookstore and that little town had been in the crosshairs of Hurricane Irene, a major, destructive natural phenomenon, a five-hundred-year storm, the second such storm to rake the region in a generation.

And Irene was only a pale shadow of the megastorm Sandy that would slam into the East Coast a year later as the second deadliest and costliest storm to hit the country in modern times.

Irene’s bull’s-eye missed my hosts and their town, but their neighbors upriver were not so lucky. What started out as Hurricane Irene, and became the costliest Category 1 storm in U.S. history, caused more than $15.8 billion in damage, almost all of it in a narrow path that stretched from the Susquehanna River basin in central Pennsylvania to the eastern banks of the Hudson in upstate New York and into western Vermont.

To be sure, there was disagreement in the scientific community about how much the changing climate, rising ocean temperatures, and rising sea levels added to the fury of the storm. But among the scientists and analysts I had spoken to there was little doubt that if Irene was not a smoking gun that demonstrated clearly that our addiction to fossil fuels had already set us well on the road to disaster, it was at the very least a harbinger of things to come, a warning of what we might face if we failed to reduce the amount of carbon that we were pumping into the atmosphere at a breakneck pace.

Certainly, I figured, a close call like that would make this precious little river town fertile ground for a discussion about the wisdom of compromise.

At least that was what I thought until about midway through my talk, when a member of the audience stood up, and in graphic detail related an incident so horrible, so extreme, that it proved, at least in that person’s mind, that those on the other side of the debate were so fundamentally evil that no compromise with them was possible, and that no sane person would even consider it.

The incident, of course, had never happened. If it had, it would have been on the front page of every newspaper in the world; it would have been on an endless crawl across the bottom of every cable news network screen; it would have been an earthshaking international event on a par with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico or the discovery of Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia.

But I could look into this person’s eyes and see that the person was not lying to me. The story was related with the same fervent, passionate faith with which a fundamentalist Christian might recount the story of Noah’s flood, or an avowed Marxist might expound on the glories of a proletarian dictatorship. As far as this person was concerned, every word was absolute gospel.

I’m not, by nature, a particularly confrontational person, and so rather than embarrass the person directly, I opted to ask a few probing questions. I made it to the third question, and then I saw a look of panic start to creep across the person’s face. I actually felt a twinge of sympathy as the person slowly came to fear that the story didn’t hold up under scrutiny, that the whole complex structure of the person’s worldview, at least as it related to this issue, was built on air.

At that moment, the person stood up, marched to the exit, spun around, glared at me, and sputtered, before storming out, “I’m not going to argue with you. I am comfortable in my ignorance!”

My first reaction? To borrow a phrase from my Australian wife—I was gobsmacked.

My second reaction was to vow that one day soon I would launch a petition drive to have “E pluribus unum” removed from our money and replaced with “I am comfortable in my ignorance.” Because that is who we have become.

You’ve no doubt noticed that—clumsily at times—I have not told you which side of the issue this person was on. Nor have I told you precisely where this occurred. I haven’t even told you the person’s gender. There’s a reason for that. Polls have indicated that on the issue of climate change, as on so many others, gender can sometimes be a predictor of position. So can geography. I haven’t even detailed the horrific, apocalyptic event the person referred to, and with good reason. These days, even our most fevered nightmares are partisan. The fact of the matter is that this person’s actual position, forged in fear and fabricated into a stubborn dogma, is irrelevant. It could have been on either side.

What that person personified is precisely what political writers and sociologists have filled volumes detailing in recent years, how long-existing cultural fractures are being exploited by the most extreme voices on the right and left, how the cultural fissures that they force open have spiderwebbed throughout society, rendering us more divided, perhaps, than we’ve been at any time since the Civil War. The divisions have paralyzed or at least marginalized our institutions—government, academia, even industry—at the precise moment when we most need those institutions to help us collect the data and devise the strategies to deal with the maddeningly complex challenges we face. Those fractures are rough and jagged, and they sometimes seem very, very deep.

If you follow the major issues of the day—climate, to be sure, but all the rest of them as well—in the mainstream press or on social media, it’s easy to believe that there is one great yawning chasm between the people on one side of the political divide and those on the other, and you could even be forgiven for lining up on one side of the divide or the other yourself. Most people, at least according to polls, do just that. But the truth is, the fractures that snake through our cultural and political landscape are not that simple. They are complex, compound fractures, and people on either side of the great divide often find themselves straddling a number of those fractures.

Nowhere is that more obvious than on the issue of climate. Partisans on both sides of the issue often claim that there are only two sides to the debate—as the most ardent climate change activists like to put it, you’re either pro-science or pro– fossil fuel, and there is no room for middle ground, or as the anti-man-made climate-change ideologues like to cast it, either you’re a dupe for what Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe called “the greatest hoax” ever perpetrated on the American people, or you’re a patriot.

But, of course, it’s not as simple as being pro-science or antiscience, as much as partisans on either side might wish it were.

Science knows what it knows. Sometimes it has an idea of what it doesn’t know. Sometimes it has no idea what it is that it doesn’t know. It’s not a parlor game. It’s not a fortune-teller on a boardwalk. It’s a process of understanding that is never-ending; it is constantly evolving. If we as a species waited for the theory of evolution to be unassailably proved before we actually evolved, we’d still be swinging from the trees trying to avoid becoming a leopard’s midafternoon snack.

And right now, the vast majority of scientists who study such things are warning, with a surprisingly high degree of certainty and an even more remarkable degree of unanimity, that the leopard is crouched and twitching.

To be fair, there is disagreement among some scientists about how much we have contributed to the changes in the climate. Natural variability, to be sure, has played a role in the weather extremes we’ve experienced in recent years. The drought in Texas, for example, or a killer heat wave in Europe would probably have occurred regardless of whether we continued to pump planet-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, though there are few scientists who would argue that these would have been as long or as deep or as destructive as they have been.

But when it comes to the big picture, the science is becoming clearer, and despite the protests of some contrarians and the reluctance of many non-scientists to accept it, a consensus has formed that the climate is changing, rapidly, and that there are things we can do to reduce at least the portion of the problem that is of our own making.

We can’t just snap our fingers and make the threat vanish.

Science, after all, is not magic. It is not the job of science to give us the answers we expect. Its job is to sharpen our questions, and hopefully to lead us to ask the right ones. It’s a tool, a tool that allows us to use the best information available to make the best possible decision at the moment. Sometimes we have the luxury of allowing the science to ripen. Sometimes we do not.

Unfortunately, science is also the only tool we have to read the clock. At the moment, the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that we have a limited amount of time to deal with the most pressing crisis we face. There is evidence that the climate, saddled with the growing burden of waste produced by our efforts to provide fuel for an increasing and increasingly affluent and demanding world population, is becoming increasingly volatile. That raises a legitimate concern that in the very near future, the instability of the climate could reach a point where we no longer have an ability to manage it.

Time and again, the political will to recognize and address the challenges that a changing climate poses, not just as an environmental issue but as an economic and even national security imperative, has fallen into the ever-deepening and widening crevasse between the two extremes.

On one side, there’s the “stand your ground” crowd—those who advocate doing nothing in the face of this challenge—which defends inaction by declaring that there are still holes in the science and we should wait until all the answers are apparent before doing anything.

Those who are persuaded that the risk is real enough, and likely urgent enough, to require immediate steps see that as cynicism, using science’s built-in uncertainties as a cudgel. And they accuse their opponents of being anti-science in large part because of it.

But they’re not blameless either. While science has gone a long way toward alerting us to a threat, neither it—nor the free market, for that matter—has provided us with many options to avert or even manage that threat.

While we have made remarkable progress in energy conservation and deploying renewable energy, we’re still a long way from the scale that would help us meet the equally critical challenge of providing enough clean energy to allow all of us—including the 1.5 billion people in the world who have no electricity at all or the roughly 2 billion more people the world is expected to hold fifty years from now—to live in dignity and a modicum of comfort. Perhaps, with appropriate support sooner rather than later, we will be able to develop those resources.

But for the moment we have to live with what we’ve got, using the least of evils to create the greatest of goods. Unfortunately, for many of us who are persuaded that the risk is real enough, that’s a deal with the devil. It’s a nonstarter.

Science is not supposed to be politics. Science—good science, used correctly—can identify risks. It can then help identify a range of possible responses to those risks. In short, science informs judgment and judgment defines action. It’s a scalpel, not a battle-ax, and it should offer a menu of options, not a manifesto. But it is being used as a manifesto, hijacked by partisans on both sides to form the basis of two competing narratives, the grimmest of Grimm fairy tales, bedtime stories of ravenous oil-sodden monsters lying in wait to despoil the earth, or radical Maoists scheming to drown the American Dream in a gray pool of socialist absolutism.

These battling dogmas seem to offer no room for compromise. And the result is that we’ve fought each other to a virtual standstill. Claiming the moral high ground and building barricades out of selective bits of science may feel really good, and boasting about our own intellectual and cultural integrity compared with those extremists on the other side might win you the prized spot closest to the police barricade at a Tea Party rally or a White House protest over the Keystone XL Pipeline, but it’s not going to make it any easier to develop a reliable way to reduce this nation’s crippling dependency on dirty energy. Nor is it going to help build the kind of consensus needed to pull any kind of carbon reduction policy out of the political tar pits that such legislative efforts have sunk into three times in the past decade alone.

The problem, of course, is that the issue seems to fit so neatly into preexisting hyperbolic orthodoxies of the two predominant strains of American culture. As the authors Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles put it in a 2012 piece in the Atlantic, the very factors that scientists believe are driving global climate change—an unalloyed capitalism reliant on the continued and accelerating use of fossil fuels—parallel the economic dreams of many conservatives. Meanwhile, the proposed responses that tend to bubble up in the media from progressives and many in the environmental movement tend to be every bit as contentious, calling for dramatically curtailing the power and authority of industry, for example, or moving toward a more localized trade system. It’s little wonder, then, that the issue of global warming has “become just another front in the culture wars,” as Gross and Gilles wrote.

Of course, it may not be quite as black and white as all that. While partisans on both sides continue to try to round up as many Americans as possible and dump them by the truckload into one camp or the other, the truth is that most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes.

We don’t fit neatly into either of those two Americas. We fit more neatly into what the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University have called, in an ongoing study first released in 2009, Global Warming’s Six Americas. On the basis of polls conducted periodically over the last several years, the researchers concluded that most Americans can be sorted into one of six groups when it comes to climate change and the role of humans in it. The most concerned group, dubbed the “Alarmed,” is, according to the 2012 poll, at 13 percent only slightly larger than those who fall into the category of least concerned, the “Dismissive,” those who reject the whole idea and account for 10 percent. Most of the voices we hear in the public debate tend to fit into one of those two camps. The most strident advocates—the ones who believe that we face an impending cataclysm, who are actively making changes in their own lives and who demand that the rest of us immediately scale back our production of carbon and other greenhouse gases even if that means a radical restructuring of the global economy; or conversely, those comparatively few voices who argue that it’s all nonsense and we should do nothing but expand our consumption of fossil fuels— represent less than a quarter of the American people.

In fact, the majority of Americans, 51 percent, according to the 2012 poll, are either “Concerned,” which means they take the risk seriously and support some degree of government action to stem the tide of climate change but have not yet become deeply involved in the issue, or “Cautious,” which means that they’re not sure whether climate change is real—about a third believe it’s real, a third don’t believe it’s real, and a third don’t know— but tend to think that even if it is real, either it won’t have serious consequences until well into the future or that we’re already doing enough to address it. Thirteen percent are “Doubtful,” which means that they believe that even if the climate is changing, it’s not our fault.

Another 6 percent fall into the “Disengaged” group, which means they are utterly uninvolved.

And yet, despite the fact that most Americans are more nuanced in their positions than those in the “Alarmed” or the “Dismissive” categories, the public debate tends to be dominated by the most extreme voices.

There are a number of reasons for that, said Michael Mann, the climate scientist who has been the lightning rod for some of the most heated debate in recent years. The increasingly acrimonious tenor of all debate in this country—a phenomenon that has been almost institutionalized by a concerted effort to redraw electoral maps to create ideologically pure political ghettos on both the left and the right—has had an impact, giving extreme constituencies a greater voice in the public debate than their numbers seem to warrant. That ideological fracturing has affected the debate on all socially divisive issues, but particularly on climate, he argued.

In essence, the complex public debate has been reduced to two camps: those who deny that the climate is changing or that we’re responsible for at least a significant part of that and those who believe that while the threats are mounting, we will have time to use the tools at our disposal—government, industry, science, academia— to develop a strategy to slow the march toward the 3- or 4-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures that most scientists believe would be disastrous.

That group of believers includes those who are convinced that it’s not good enough to avoid reaching what scientists believe is the bright red line that marks concentrations of carbon at 450 parts per million in the earth’s atmosphere. These are people who demand a return to 350 parts per million (we crossed the 400 threshold for a full day for the first time in millennia in May 2013), even if that requires a revolutionary overhaul of the planet’s already struggling economic system, a system that is barely serving billions of the 7 billion people on earth, and will sputter even more as that total edges closer to 9 billion in the coming decades.

The increased balkanization of the media, with conservatives drifting toward conservative media outlets and liberals toward the liberal outlets, has also contributed to the problem, as has the media’s propensity to, in the interest of balance, present two sides, and usually only two sides, of a multifaceted issue and then call it a day. The media, Mann said, have been largely “unwitting” accomplices in the muddying of the debate over climate. He used the word “pawns.”

Though there are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1, the press in the United States, especially, tends to be a binary business, he argued, designed to approximate balance by getting two points of view on any subject even when those two points of view are not symmetrical. As a business, it is driven by market forces to book the voices that are the most extreme, and therefore the most entertaining.

To be sure, says Candis Callison, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia who has built a career studying the intersections between scientists and the media, in recent years there has been a marked decline in science writing and reporting at every level from the national press all the way down to local newspapers. Chalk it up to a mad rush to cut newsroom costs, or a general decline in the standards of what passes for news, but the end result is that there’s a lot less science expertise in newsrooms around the country. And while there has been, at the same time, an explosion in the number of specialized, boutique publications and websites that focus on the interests of climate geeks, those outlets tend to preach to the choir.

What’s missing, she says, is the old-fashioned voice-in-the-public-square role that newspapers and local radio and television outlets used to play.

“You’ve seen science sections shut down,” she told me. “You’ve seen them pretty much disappear in local and regional newspapers.... In general, there’s less opportunity for journalists to pitch those kinds of stories.”

And when the stories make it into the newspapers or the local six o’clock news, the hidebound traditions of the craft—the need to tell a story in a top-down “inverted pyramid” form familiar to the readers, with competing experts offering conflicting interpretations— often does as much to obscure the facts as to illuminate them.

One result is that the nuances that should define the debate are lost. Another is that when the public hears about nothing but the extreme positions, the potential to reach common ground is eroded.

This excerpt was reprinted with permission from Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change, by Seamus McGraw and published by the University of Texas Press, 2015.