Shake hands photo

For many Americans, arguing has become a national pastime. Even the sacred ritual of pro football no longer offers temporary respite from the din: It too has devolved into a battleground of partisan refrains lobbed back and forth.

Health care suffers the same plight, along with guns, some old monuments and statues, immigration, and tax policy. And of course, those working on climate change are no strangers to the endless, shrill controversy, even around long-understood concepts in physics and chemistry.

But does all this energetic debate sometimes lead toward real solutions? Does anyone soften a stance, admit to learning something new, or appreciate a different perspective? Compromise and introspection are vanishingly rare these days.

Maybe there is a better way.

Observing and measuring the dialogue around climate change led to an idea to pull people out of the rut of online arguments, have them sit down together, and engage them in real conversation. Let’s call it a “common ground on climate change” approach that seeks to get past our party-line reflexes, illuminate productive middle ground, and ultimately lead to a path forward.

These conversations are not a red team/blue team rehash of the realities of climate change science. Instead, they are an opportunity to slow down, listen to other perspectives, and see if mutual learning might develop.

Paul, meet Travis … Travis, meet Paul

Paul Agle, 36, is a former oilfield geologist turned high school science teacher. He recently relocated from Houston, Texas, to upstate New York. Agle rates himself as “cautious” on the Global Warming’s Six Americas spectrum. He describes the climate debate as overly polarized, with deniers on one end clashing with “true believers.” Agle understands that climate change is a problem, but he doesn’t consider it to be a top priority.

Travis Madsen, 40, lives in Denver, Colorado and is a professional climate advocate. He works for the nonprofit Environment America, promoting public policy to reduce pollution and help advance clean energy. Madsen ranks himself as “alarmed” on the Six Americas scale.

Agle and Madsen responded to an open query on Facebook seeking people to engage in an hour-long discussion about climate change. Respondents’ views on environmental topics were measured with a screening questionnaire, and people with differing outlooks were matched up for an interview. An attempt was made to pair people who otherwise share age and demographics in common, in part so that they could more easily relate to each other’s outlook.

In early August, Agle and Madsen engaged in an online video conversation using Zoom, providing real-time dialog and allowing them and the author of this piece to see and hear each other.

Six Americas ratings by Madsen and Agle
Before their interview, Agle and Madsen rated themselves on the Six America’s spectrum. Image adapted by Karin Kirk from Six Americas study.

Comparing environmental values

The similarities and differences between Agle and Madsen’s views become clear from their answers to the screening questionnaire: their views about the role of regulation, the impacts of humans on the Earth, trust in scientists, and the risks associated with climate change.

The table below shows Agle and Madsen’s responses to the questions.

Comparison of environmental values table
Agle and Madsen rated their own values on environmental themes. Responses that fall toward the left side of the table reflect a strong commitment to environmental issues. Responses toward the right side represent a low priority or lack of trust about environmental issues. Image by Karin Kirk.

Acknowledge the common ground

Agle and Madsen largely overlap in their views that humans are having a significant impact on the Earth, that environmental regulations are worthwhile and necessary, that scientists are trustworthy, and that approaches to managing climate change will be beneficial. On the question of corporate influence in setting government policy, their positions are swapped from the usual partisan viewpoints. Madsen appreciates that while traditional energy companies have an outsized influence in politics, clean energy companies deserve a seat at the table, too.

Agle holds a more resolute stance, “Public servants should serve the public, not corporations,” he says.

Very quickly, the two realize they are mostly in agreement. Madssen: “I’m closer to where you’re at on that.”

And Agle: “Yeah, I feel like we’re not too far apart.”

Starting with an appreciation of their shared values helped them resist an adversarial dynamic; it helped establish a baseline of agreement and set the stage for a respectful conversation.

Move on to differing views: Are climate risks overstated?

The most significant gulf between Agle and Madsen involves their perceptions of the severity of environmental problems.

Agle is careful to articulate that he accepts the science of climate change and he respects the scientific literature as the source of credible, trustworthy science. But he doesn’t see climate change as a pressing issue. “There are other priorities we need to address first,” Agle says, noting that food shortages and income inequality rank higher on his list of concerns.

Agle also feels that the urgency of climate change is overstated. “A lot of public discussion is focused on the extreme outcomes,” he says, adding that he thinks the media too often tend to blow risks out of proportion.

Madsen agrees in part: “You’re right. There are definitely some articles that look at worst-case scenarios. And while those are possible, you’re right that they’re on the less-likely end of the spectrum.”

But, Madsen continues, “I don’t think enough people know how serious these problems actually are. Air pollution is still killing 200,000 people a year. These impacts are huge and they’re happening now.”

Agle agrees that near-term risks are easier for the public to grasp. “Everyone can realize that you’re breathing in toxic smoke today – it’s harming you right now.” But risks posed by climate change for many seem “far-out in the future … less certain, and less immediate.”

Madsen nods with a chuckle, “Yeah. This is one of the central challenges of my job.”

‘Solutions’ are a win for both sides

A strong takeaway from the Agle/Madsen conversation was the pronounced middle ground where they agreed with each other. Notably, their conversation centered around the desirability of a rapid adoption of renewable energy.

Madsen advocates ramping-down fossil fuels completely within the next 20-30 years, and switching to 100 percent renewable energy. “Electricity, transportation, heating, industry. All of it.”

“The faster we do it, the more we can minimize the changes we’re causing – to our planet and to our communities,” he says.

Agle is hesitant. “I don’t like government getting involved in picking winners and losers. We should let technology and the free market dictate the pace we’re going.”

But as Madsen describes some of the challenges he’s encountered with advocating for renewable energy policies, Agle begins to chime-in on the appeal of clean energy: “There are things we can do right now that are going to be beneficial anyways. Switching to wind and solar and reducing emissions from coal plants. That’s positive whether it helps global warming or not.”

Citing local job growth and pollution reductions, Madsen explains, “If people understood that there’s a reason to do this now, independent of climate change, then we could have some more productive conversations.”

“Yeah, I fully agree with that,” Agle responds. “If you decouple those measurable benefits from the controversial portions of the discussion, it becomes a very easy discussion.”

Contrary to Agle’s preference for a free-market approach, Madsen urges a rapid scale-up of clean energy. “It has to be fast, because of the incredible momentum of the climate system. The longer we wait, the bigger the negative changes will be.”

Agle nods. “Yeah, I agree. So every dollar we don’t spend today is two dollars we have to spend decades from now. Money spent today saves us money tomorrow.” But he then also steps-back: “But some people don’t have that dollar to spend today.”

Madsen reminds Agle that despite an initial investment in, say, an electric car, it can still have a net positive economic impact over time.

“Yeah.” Agle says, “So we can focus on those aspects where there’s a net positive economic gain, regardless of the climate change issue.” Madsen nods as Agle concludes, “Everyone should be able to get on board with that.”

‘The fruitful discussion is in the middle’

Reflecting on the arc of their discussion, Madsen muses, “This conversation makes me think there’s way more common ground than disagreement.” As he well knows from his work in advocacy, “changing minds is almost impossible.”

Instead, Madsen has found better traction in motivating people who may be only partially on board. He emphasizes “getting those folks to realize that their input and their participation in the political process can be the deciding factor.” Madsen finds that people often don’t realize that their voices do, indeed, have influence.

Similarly, Agle offers advice for advancing the conversation. “Tone down the rhetoric and focus on the obvious big wins, for everyone involved. If something helps the economy right now, and it helps alleviate global warming effects decades away, nobody’s going to disagree with that. Focus on the dollars and cents, and try to make a logic-based argument to people instead of trying to appeal to their fear and emotions.”

“The fruitful discussion would be in the middle,” says Agle, “and we’re not having that discussion.”

Agle wraps up with the same sentiment that many others may feel: “We’re doing too much screaming and not enough talking.”

Are you interested in taking part in a common ground interview?

We’re looking for people who want to participate in these common ground conversations. We’re particularly interested in hearing from those who are uncertain or doubtful about climate change, or who have recently gone from being skeptical to accepting the science and seeking “solutions.” But we’re open to any perspective.

Also, if you have co-workers, friends, or family members who hold a viewpoint distinctly different from your own and you’d like to be interviewed with them, we’d love to hear from you.

Send an e-mail to Karin and she’ll send you the “Common Ground on Climate Change” questionnaire.

The ‘Common Ground’ Series:

Seeking ‘common ground’ in climate change dialogues

Changing one’s views through dialogue

Middle ground: Fertile for climate change dialogue

Dissolving stereotypes and seeking climate ‘solutions’

Finding common ground amid climate controversy

Karin Kirk is a geologist and freelance writer with a background in climate education. She's a scientist by training, but the human elements of climate change occupy most of her current work. Karin is...