The letters to the editor in Montana’s Bozeman Daily Chronicle are probably similar to those in other small-town newspapers. People worry about the growth of the town, complain about dog poop, and debate the politics du jour.
This past January, when Quresh Latif wrote a letter defending climate science, the online comments devolved into the usual tit-for-tat vitriol. But unlike the relative anonymity of social media commenters, these came from his neighbors. Dismayed by the unproductive toxicity, Latif sought a better way to exchange ideas.
“I have pretty strong emotions on this topic,” says Latif, an ecologist and father of two young girls. “I have difficulty meeting my own ideals when talking to skeptics of mainstream science.” Like many other Americans, Latif is troubled by our society’s deepening polarization. “After Trump got elected, I felt like I needed to make a concerted effort to practice conversation with people who are outside my bubble.”
David Albert is also a regular letter-writer to the newspaper; he argues that CO2 is not a pollutant, nor is it causing any harm. He maintains that renewable energy policy is driven by fear, and he expects a “rapid and prolonged cooling” rather than the continued warming anticipated by nearly all climate scientists.
Courteous exchanges vs. ‘faceless’ blog posts
Albert’s letters led to an online uproar in the comments section. (The Chronicle has since disabled commenting on website.) As a retired land and mineral surveyor, he says, “My profession is measuring things,” which sparked an interest in how global temperature is determined. But he found that his challenges to climate science garnered personal attacks “questioning my intentions, intelligence, or humanity.” Instead, he wanted “a chance to explain my opinions and understandings while hearing other’s views with live, courteous people, rather than a faceless blog.””Differing Click To Tweet
Coming at the issue from opposite perspectives in their Chronicle letters, Latif and Albert agreed to sit down and talk about climate change, face to face, over lunch. They’ve now had seven monthly meetings, which are open to other members of the community. “This group is rather unique,” Albert recently explained. “We call this our climate conversation. You don’t see a conversation like this going on in very many other places.”
On a sweltering July afternoon, they met in Latif’s dining room, joined by Felix Columbo, a retired economist, and Lexi Newhall, a psychological counselor and mother of two toddlers. The meal was ready-made Indian food, a nod to Latif’s Indian heritage, and was hungrily appreciated by all.
The four brought to the table different outlooks and motivations that drew them together. Columbo is interested in the economics of energy, while Newhall is deeply concerned about climate change and striving to understand the “rural Republican mind set.”
Being passionate without being angry
As lunch was passed among them, they chatted about typical behavior of online commenters. “It’s discouraging to think that [anger] can control people,” Albert said. “I can still be passionate about what I believe without being mad at someone who disagrees with me.”
Latif responded in kind. “I’m grateful to you. I’m pleased we share those values – even though we don’t share the values immediately around climate change, we do share the value of conversation and the value of understanding each other.”
“I would certainly hope so,” replied Albert, nodding.
Different views on climate modeling
With the pleasantries behind them, the group jumped into the nitty-gritty. Their previous lunch-hour chats had ranged from the reliability of ice core data to the cultural lens of the climate change debate. This day’s topic revolved around the validity of climate models. Albert claimed that models over-predict warming, perhaps to the point of what he called a “doomsday scenario.”
Latif asserted that current models do a good job of matching actual temperatures. “I’ve always seen that observations have been within the error bars.”
“Yeah,” said Albert, acknowledging that it’s difficult to find graphs that show a disconnect between models and observations. One of the best is Dr. Christy’s,” he said. “Dr. Christy’s graph has showed up in Senate hearings; it’s used a lot. Some of the rabid websites think it’s in error, but I’d be hard pressed to find any depth of error in it. The biggest complaint is that it isn’t comparing surface temperatures – it’s mid-troposphere. But that’s where the models project the biggest change, mid-troposphere.”
Satellite vs. surface temperatures
The Dr. Christy Albert referred to is John Christy, Ph.D, of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, who is frequently on the dissenting side of mainstream climate science. Indeed, Christy recently presented graphs to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology at the behest of the committee’s ardently industry-friendly chairman, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who, incidentally, recently expressed support for the idea that scientific journals should be punished for publishing research that falls short of his standards of peer review. The Christy graph portrays model projections as a lonely red line, with satellite-derived temperature measurements dangling well below it. The graphic starkly suggests that climate models are predicting far more warming than is actually occurring.
Latif’s response that observed temperatures are within the error bars speaks to the fact that Dr. Christy’s graph has no error bars. It combines output from 102 different models into a single line, which makes for a compelling, yet misleading, graphic. When an envelope of 95 percent confidence is added to the plot, the observed temperatures fall within the range of predictions.
Critics say Christy’s graphs maximize the gap between model projections and observed temperatures, driven by choices made in selecting the time frame and the specific part of the atmosphere that shows the biggest discrepancy. (Read more in a rebuttal of the Christy graphs and a general article about models vs. observations by climatologist Gavin Schmidt of NASA, and a related Yale Climate Connections video.)
As Albert suggested, the surface temperatures are quite close to what models have predicted. But because the satellite record offers a larger mismatch, that’s the particular dataset that climate contrarians use to make their point.
‘It’s difficult not to get in the weeds’
Details like that are impractical to hash through over lunch. No one in the group is a climate scientist, and unlike in online discussions, they don’t immediately pull up supportive graphics or articles reinforcing their perspectives. So they wade through the science and policy together, and try to work out their differences.
“It’s difficult not to get in the weeds,” said Columbo as he noted the complexity of climate science. “Let’s stay on the big questions.”
Weeds notwithstanding, the conversation hit on the reality that some climate models have predicted more warming than what has actually occurred. Scientists see this as an opportunity to strengthen their understanding and improve the ability of models to accurately portray what’s happening on Earth.
For some people, that’s just one more example of how scientific inquiry marches forward. But for others, it contributes to skepticism about the robustness of the science.
‘Enough evidence’ … or too ‘inconclusive’?
“So is the science settled?” Albert asked.
Columbo responded, “I’ve gotten very skeptical that what has happened in the past can be used to predict the future. Those parameters change. I don’t care how good the model is, there are a gazillion variables.” Columbo continued, “I do know we’ve observed changes, but it could be 10 times worse that what we think.”
Latif jumped in: “Science as a whole isn’t settled.” Heads nodded all around. “But the basic conclusion is that human emissions are increasing CO2, and that has effect on climate and has risks. Yeah, I don’t just take the RCP8 [the IPCC’s most dire scenario] and think the world is going to shit. But there is enough evidence to put a price on carbon. We can do that in a way that does not hurt the poorest.”
Columbo, who had seemed starkly neutral up until that point, finally drew a line in the sand. “There is so much inconclusive information, but the risk of a screw-up is so great, and I’m risk averse; I’ll do it. I think we can lead the world in clean energy.”
“Exactly,” added Latif. “If you have a revenue-neutral climate tax … then there is incentive to develop new technology.”
Albert chimed in: “Yeah, I don’t disagree in concept or if it were applied in a reasonable way.”
A parent’s perspective
Albert paused the conversation and addressed Newhall, who had been listening quietly. This was her first time attending a climate lunch, and she had wisely observed the conversational volley as it played out in front of her. Albert brought her into the fold.
“What do you think of the science?” he asked. “Do you think that carbon emissions from fossil fuels cause climate change?”
Providing a contrast to the technical discussion, Newhall offered the take of a concerned parent: “If my baby has a fever, even a small amount causes big changes. I can see how one degree makes a big difference in my baby. Then 2, 3, or 4 degrees is a bigger deal. I apply the same logic to the globe.”
In turn, each person around the table acknowledged that their own children, ranging in age from 1 to 42, gave them a sense of profound responsibility.
“The spike that’s happening now is so fast and so sharp, compared to what we’ve seen in the past,” Newhall said. “The alarm is high for me.”
But she didn’t dwell on the negative; she made a swift pivot toward optimism. “We have the innovation to move off of coal. To move away from that could be really cool. I’d like to be part of that.”
Columbo leaned forward in his chair. “I like it! We have to go with gut feelings, sometimes. We’re going to need to go with some of the things you mentioned, Lexi.”
Making all at the lunch table ‘happy’
Albert smiled and sat back to listen.
Newhall addressed Albert directly, “It sounds like you’ve read about different ways to generate energy. If it were up to you, would you go down a different path?”
Newhall demonstrated her counseling skills as she guided the topic toward future possibilities. “It seems like you get excited about that idea.” Albert nodded as Newhall continued. “Instead of saying CO2 is bad, we can get excited about other options. I feel like that can make everybody at the table happy.”
For the moment, it appeared to work. There was general agreement around the table. Although there is always more to say on this enormous topic, the hour was up, lunch had been consumed, and the group indulged in cookies while reverting to small talk.
Bozeman’s “climate conversation” offers one small but hopeful antidote to the mounting intolerance between those with opposing views on climate change. Because of deliberate attempts to undermine and mischaracterize climate science, many climate advocates have become wary of those who offer a different outlook on climate change. But not every newspaper letter-writer is attempting to upend the science. Many are simply expressing their concerns on a complex societal problem – one having many possible solutions. Progress on climate change requires buy-in from all sides: It will likely come more readily through listening to those with different perspectives.
“We all have a story for why we end up in a ‘camp,’” Newhall said. “Once we’re heard, then we can also listen.”
The group bid their goodbyes and departed into the midafternoon heat of yet another unseasonably warm summer day, their next climate luncheon again a month off.
Editor’s note: The surname of one participant quoted in this story was replaced with a pseudonym at the individual’s request.