Heated Argument on Climate Change

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”
~ William Lloyd Garrison

I ended up getting in a heated argument with my dad. It wasn’t intentional. If anything, I was trying to avoid it. But I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The discussion began with violence in the media, but somehow made its way to the even more contentious issue of climate change. The latter issue really gets my blood boiling, partly because of how dismissive people like my dad can be. He is an older middle class white male American. He has never experienced most of the externalized costs from environmental problems and likely never will. He’ll probably be dead by the time the shit hits the fan (and he realizes this, as he has increasingly talked about his own mortality now that he is in his 70s).

Part of my dad’s attitude is that he has spent his entire life in positions of authority (army officer, factory manager, private consultant, professor, president of the local Kiwanis group, Church deacon, and on and on). He isn’t used to people challenging him, especially about intellectual topics. Even when he doesn’t know something, he knows how to sound intelligent, confident and generally authoritative. I’m sure I’m one of the few people in his older age who have been willing to challenge him and put his feet to the fire.

He complained that I was treating him with disrespect, and that is what bothers him. It seems to me that he’d rather be un-/misinformed and treated with respect than to risk dealing with uncomfortable truths. The problem is I refuse to respect his ignorance, willful or unintentional, nor to respect his disrespect toward me and toward experts who actually do know what they’re talking about. If he wants respect, then he has to earn it… like everyone else.

* * * *

I don’t know what better response I could have given. I just have my breaking point. No matter what I have ever said, I’ve never been able to get my dad to take any of it seriously. To him, it is some combination of an intellectual exercise and political rhetoric. What it isn’t to him is personally and viscerally real.

He doesn’t understand why it bothers so much we in the younger generations who will spend the rest of our lives dealing with the literal sins of our fathers (and mothers). We have real reasons to be worried about when the bill comes due for the generations of unpaid externalized costs. How can someone like my dad be so heartless toward the well being of his own children and grandchildren? This isn’t just about politics. Lives are at stake. The inevitable suffering isn’t a hypothetical.

I don’t know how to reach him in his state of fearful denial and passive inaction. I know it is overwhelming, as to be almost incomprehensible in its vastness and complexity. We are playing with things we don’t understand. To consider the consequences is no easy task. But that difficulty isn’t a valid excuse.

I feel frustrated. My dad is able to be rational and talk rationally. But this problem ultimately can’t be touched upon with rationality alone. My dad uses rationality as a way to distance himself. Rationality as rationalization. He always has a reason to dismiss the data and those who point to it. The world is full of reasons, too many of them being superficial and self-serving. Oddly but all too typical, my dad uses reason to dismiss reason, which is to say he uses rhetoric as a defense against deeper thinking (and feeling). The climate science is ‘fishy’, he says—no further explanation required in his mind.

I’m not sure if or how I could act differently to (maybe) elicit a different response. It’s obvious that he gets defensive and is polarized. His facade of intellectuality is where he retreats to. So, that is where I meet him, but in reality his demand for respectful reasonableness is just a front he puts on. As long as we are moderate in our emotions and remain politically correct in our language, there is no danger of straying from the status quo and so no danger of becoming too uncomfortable.

The genuine truth and authentic heart of the matter is what is being avoided. Not just facts but what acknowledging those facts would mean. The suffering in the world is immeasurable, even as we can measure the expression of that suffering in concrete problems (rates of poverty, toxicity, mortality, etc). It’s too easy to feel helpless.

Basically, that is what I hear from my dad: What is the point? Let’s just focus on the positive (or at least avoid focusing on the negative) because, in the end, we’re probably doomed.

His worldview is typically Christian, in the mainstream sense. We are all Sinners with a fatal flaw built into our nature, Original Sin. My dad wouldn’t overtly talk in those terms, but that is the sense I get from him. These major problems are caused by human failure and any attempt to deal with them will just lead to ever more and greater failure. The best we can do is to hold our heads down and hope for the best. The suffering of so many people in the world is inevitable, and we who suffer the least should simply count our blessings, but beyond a few token actions of charity there is nothing we can do about the suffering of others, much less the larger systemic problems behind it all.

It is an attitude of defeat, of fatalism and cynicism.

* * * *

On my end, I want to communicate well. But I realize how often I fail at this aspiration. Irritation, exasperation, and outrage easily get the better of me. I’m even known for sometimes being an ornery asshole when you catch me in the right mood.

How could I communicate better? What wording or framing would be able to soften my dad’s defenses and allow real communication to happen?

One thought I had was putting it into the context of one of his own interests, World War II. As I’ve never been a climatologist, my father never fought in WWII. But similarly we both have an interest and have spent many years thinking about these topics, although not as serious scholarly study. It’s just two subjects we each have been focused on throughout our lives. So, what if the situation was turned around and my father was trying to argue something about WWII?

It’s as if I stated strong opinions about WWII bombers and tanks, after having read a few anti-war pieces in the New York Times. And then I dismissed his more informed opinion on the matter. When he pointed to scholarly data and professional opinion, I said that I wasn’t interested in researching it further. Instead, I said it smelled fishy and argued that the historians who supported his view were biased because they profit from getting grants to do research, selling books, and getting gigs on documentaries—not to mention promoting the military-industrial complex, as if their studying about war proves that they want more war to further their careers, whether or not such motivations are conscious.

If I did all of that, it would be highly disrespectful and, from his perspective, simply frustrating. He holds others to a higher standard than he holds to himself and those he agrees with. But he can’t see it that way. It is hard for him to imagine himself in the opposite position.

That goes for me as well. It’s hard for me to fully sympathize with my dad, to take on his worldview. I don’t want to merely be righteous. In the end, I know my dad means well and he actually is intellectually honest, even if he has a hard time coming to terms with this issue.

Still, none of that changes the issue at hand. Climate change is what it is, no matter what we think or feel about it.

* * * *

My dad showed me an article. It is a piece from the Wall Street Journal by Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser: Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate. I wasn’t in the mood to look at it, as I’ve simply grown tired of the pointlessness of it all. And I told him so.

I realize he doesn’t like the term ‘denialist’. But there is good reason why some place that label upon those like Matt Ridley. He has repeatedly shown he isn’t interested in honest debate. His critics have refuted much of his evidence over the years. Yet he never acknowledges any of this science and goes on repeating the same refuted misinformation.

Ridley is denying strongly supported scientific evidence. What should someone like this be called? After a while, the more well informed begin to question the motives of this kind of political activist (actually a politician in this case and also a former chairman of a bailed out and nationalized bank) aligned with big money special interests:

Matt Ridley – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“Ridley is a forthright proponent of fracking. However he has been found to have breached the Parliamentary Code of Conduct by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards for failing to disclose in debates on the subject personal interests worth at least £50,000 in Weir Group, which has been described as, ‘the world’s largest provider of special equipment used in the process’ of fracking.”

He inherited his position at the bank from his father. And his investments in coal mining are from his family’s estates. To put it simply, he was born into wealth and power. And has since spent his life in the corporatist revolving door between big biz and big gov. On top of that, despite pretending to be an authority to be taken seriously, he has absolutely no expertise about climatology.

He represents so much of what is wrong with the world. And that just depresses me.

* * * *

The following are a mix of articles. Many of them are about Matt Ridley. But if you go further down, there are some about other issues: conservatism, libertarianism, national security, and survey data.

2 thoughts on “Heated Argument on Climate Change

  1. Beautifully said, Benjamin! I’m with you all the way — and I share the same demographic as your dad. I wish I could give you advice on how to deal with his way of thinking about this, but I really don’t have any except to ‘hang in there.’ Someday he may come around, and meanwhile you’ll also be talking to lots of other people and probably moving them to action with your thoughtful writing.

    • I have nothing against that particular demographic.

      Many insightful thinkers have been of that demographic. Joe Bageant comes to mind, as does Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, etc. I could even add those like Martin Luther King to the list. All of those people were born near to when my father was born.

      I’m certainly not opposed to older white males on principle. One day, I myself might end up an older white male.

      I’m feeling better now. It’s nice to get things off my chest, both in communicating to my dad and on my blog… no matter how imperfectly at times. I don’t hold anything against my dad. I know he means well and he really does do a lot of good in his own way.

      I think talking is good, even when it involves conflict. It’s when we stop talking to each other that it’s problematic.

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