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The daily dose of news is often served up as a popularity poll: 26% of Americans like the tax plan; 37% approve of the President; 61% prefer dogs to cats.

Any hope of nuance is lost in a one-dimensional, up/down poll, as when it comes to climate change. For some, it’s irresistible to focus on “deniers,” in part because their perceived misrepresentations of the science are infuriating to many. But those who flat-out dismiss the science of climate change are a small minority, hovering at fewer than 10% of Americans, according to Global Warming’s Six Americas public opinion research, done by the Yale Program on Climate Communication, which publishes this site.

A larger segment consists of those uncertain, unmotivated, or having mixed emotions and views on the topic. When it comes to improving public understanding of climate change, that middle group can be a wise place to start.

Susan Elizabeth is one who sees herself as part of the middle ground on climate change: She is “cautious” on the Six Americas scale (along with 23% of Americans). Elizabeth, 60, living in Seattle, considers herself a moderate amid a fairly liberal community. She’s a software tester, with a Master’s degree in philosophy. “For somebody who’s not a ‘true believer,’” she says of her opinions on climate change, “I’ve thought about it a lot.”

Elizabeth volunteered for our series of “common ground” interviews, based on a recommendation from a friend and reader. Describing her preferred partner for her interview, she emailed: “my dream person would be someone who knows a lot about the science, maybe even a climate scientist.”

Fulfilling that dream was easy; many scientists are happy to discuss their work. Elizabeth was paired up with Ed Maurer, a civil engineering professor who studies climate change effects on water resources. Maurer, 56, conducts research and teaches at Santa Clara University, south of San Francisco, and also makes time to distill climate science to general audiences.

Elizabeth and Maurer are the latest pairing in the sequence of Yale Climate Connections “common ground” conversations, wherein people with differing views engage in a real-life dialogue. (Read about the first and second matchups in this series.)

Settling in for the video conference, Elizabeth expresses her anticipation for the discussion. “I’ve always wanted to go out to lunch with a climate scientist,” she muses, “so I can ask lots of questions.”

Before their interview, Elizabeth and Maurer rated themselves on the Six Americas spectrum. Image adapted from Six Americas study.

The surprise of finding shared values

Elizabeth and Maurer begin their conversation by comparing their values on topics like environmental regulation, the effects of humans on the Earth, and whether solutions to climate change will be harmful or beneficial.

Their values are measured by a questionnaire and are displayed in a table during the interview. Responses that fall toward the left side of the table show a strong tendency toward environmental protection and stewardship of the Earth. When filling out the questionnaire, however, the questions are flip-flopped randomly on the page, so the pattern is not evident.

Elizabeth was surprised when she sees their results on the values survey. “Wait, really?” she exclaims. “Those look almost the same as Ed’s! I’m a moderate who leans liberal and I expect to be over in the other columns.”

“I’m a little bit surprised by that. I thought that at least on some of them that I’d be further over to the right,” she says.

Elizabeth and Maurer 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 lower priority or lack of trust about environmental issues.

‘Blindly believe what scientists tell me?’

Elizabeth describes her predicament about climate change, beginning with the contrast with her friends. “My liberal friends just immediately agreed with climate change. When they agreed without any critical thinking, that bothered me,” she says. Elizabeth doesn’t doubt the science, per se, but she says she needs more clarity before she can feel comfortable with it.

“Three years ago I decided I really needed to figure out this climate change thing,” recounts Elizabeth. “So what I often do is look at the studies and read it, see what I think about it – look at it critically … But when I tried to do that with climate change I realized I couldn’t do it. The science was just too out of my ability to figure it out by myself.”

Elizabeth did what many do; she turned to someone with expertise to help her make sense out of it. “So I have a friend who is a scientist and I asked what should laypeople do … He immediately said, ‘you have to trust the scientists’ you know, hands down. I was like ‘Wait a minute, you want me to blindly believe what scientists tell me?’ We just can’t do that.”

Maurer is sympathetic to Elizabeth’s plight. “That’s a totally fair question,” he says, not the least bit defensive. “I agree with you that it’s hard to get good information. Science is covered poorly by the media.” Maurer’s first recommendation is to visit Skeptical Science, a scientific website written to help laypeople understand climate change research, and particularly to sort out the differences between misinformation and authentic science.

How many have actually looked at the data?

Elizabeth’s primary question revolves around the integrity of climate research. She wonders if scientists have reached their conclusions independently, or if they have a tendency to mimic each other’s thinking.

“How many of those people [scientists] have actually looked at the data themselves?” Elizabeth asks.

“Pretty much all of them,” Maurer replies.

“Really?” Elizabeth replies, showing a little surprise, “Like, you’ve done that?”

“Yes,” Maurer says, as he goes on to describe the vast range of data that is freely available and widely shared. “Atmospheric temperatures, sea surface temperatures, rainfall rates. It’s become pretty standard, I think, for everyone. Even in graduate school … if you’re working on this, you’re looking at the data.”

‘Rewards in science go to bucking the trends’

Elizabeth wasn’t kidding when she said she’d been wanting to talk to a scientist, and she proceeds to the next question on her thoughtfully-prepared list. She uses an anecdote from nutrition science, which for decades told us that fat is unhealthy. Current findings may upend that dogma, introducing the possibility that the initial conclusions led down the wrong path. “This is very political. It got rolling, and people started believing it even though the research may not have fully been there,” Elizabeth says.

Elizabeth wonders if the same thing could happen in climate research. “If scientists started to see a cooling effect, over several years, do you think they would come out and say that? Or is it too political?”

Maurer replies with a smile. “No. In fact, I think, rewards in science go to bucking the trends.”

“Okay,” Elizabeth says, nodding understandingly.

Maurer continues. “If you do something different you get published, you get a lot of attention, you get grants. There’s definitely value in doing that.”

Maurer illustrates his point with a high-profile example. In the early 2000’s, Earth’s surface air temperatures did not warm as quickly as had been expected. The reduced rate of warming attracted contrarian claims that scientists had climate change all wrong, claims echoed by political foes of taking climate action. The anomaly also spurred the scientific community to make sense of the unexpected results.

This so-called “hiatus” – a term that took hold even as many scientists found it inappropriate – was hardly brushed aside by scientists. The topic has been the subject of numerous peer-reviewed papers, fueling lively debate at scientific conferences.

“They were looking at that very openly and very frankly,” recalls Maurer. “I don’t think there was any effort to say, ‘Let’s pretend this isn’t happening. Let’s not talk about it because it’s not our narrative.’”

Maurer describes the scientific advancement gained in that process: “We nailed down where the heat really goes.” The Earth system continued to accumulate heat, but a prevalence of La Niña conditions suppressed the warming trend in air temperatures. Meanwhile, extra heat went into the oceans, not the air. “That became really evident once we switched back to an El Niño and we saw the leaps in global air temperatures over the last couple years,” Maurer explained.

“That answers one of my questions,” says Elizabeth. “It’s good to hear there would be a motivation to say something if people saw a different trend.”

‘Can we do anything to change it at this point?’

Both Elizabeth and Maurer share a concern about human suffering brought about by climate change. Elizabeth offers a sobering thought, “My biggest concern is that, when things get bad, poorer people will suffer the most. They always do.”

Elizabeth continues, “I’m dismayed when I hear doomsday predictions – are they true? Can we even do anything to change it at this point?”

Maurer acknowledges that even if all of humanity could instantly stop burning fossil fuels, Earth will continue to warm. “Earth’s climate system is like a barge, and we’re bumping up against it with a tugboat. It’s not going to change direction very quickly.” He adds emphatically, “But it’s so important that we do it.”

Elizabeth asks, “Is there a plan that … actually would help? Would slow the warming?”

Maurer replies, “Optimistically I’d say yes.” He turns to economics. “We’re twisting the economy, dramatically, to favor the use of damaging things. Things that damage human health and the environment.” Maurer favors a carbon fee and dividend, as championed by Citizens’ Climate Lobby and by some libertarian interests.

Ultimately, says Maurer, “The thing we can do is stop burning all that [fossil fuel]. That’s what really motivates me.”

‘A great conversation … I feel better’

By the end of the hour-long discussion, Elizabeth seems satisfied: “This definitely answers some questions that I’ve had for like three years. It was very helpful.”

“This was a really great conversation,” Maurer replied. “Obviously you’ve been thinking about this deeply, and you have some real serious questions.”

Reflecting on the experience in a follow-up email, Elizabeth repeated that the discussion helped her feel more secure about accepting scientific claims about climate change. She listed the most influential factors: “Ed’s knowledge and integrity, his description of methods climate scientists use, and his description of the discipline as one where scientists are willing to openly disagree.”

“Afterwards, I was trying to figure out if I can trust climate scientists, and I feel better about doing that.”

For many, the blood pressure spikes when encountering yet another social media comment claiming to debunk Earth’s warming. But take comfort in knowing there are opportunities for more intelligent exchanges. It can be useful to seek out moderates and “swing votes,” see what common ground might be shared, and strive for productive discussions. The outcome just might be mutually beneficial.

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

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...