Lukowiak family
James Lukowiak and family. Photo courtesy of James Lukowiak.

James Lukowiak and Jeremy Pettitt grew up in Carmel, Indiana, a prosperous suburb of Indianapolis. Pettitt and Lukowiak were classmates at Heritage Christian School until 10th grade, when Pettitt’s family relocated to Arizona.

Jeremy Pettitt and James Lukowiak
Jeremy Pettitt, left, and James Lukowiak, right, were classmates until 10th grade.

After losing track of each other for 18 years, they reconnected over Facebook and began to catch up. As the two old friends pieced together their life stories and interests, Lukowiak learned that Pettitt had become an advocate for climate change. Lukowiak had been skeptical about the topic and was intrigued by Pettitt’s online postings.

Over the course of about five years, Lukowiak made a gradual turnabout on climate change, coming to accept the evidence and understand that humans are the cause. The initial prompt to re-examine his stance was a shift toward more introspective thinking at his church. This open-mindedness transferred into other aspects of his life, including his views on climate change. From there, Lukowiak turned to social media to challenge his worldview on climate change – and was ultimately influenced by his former schoolmate.

Polls show that during the past five years, many Americans have been changing their minds about climate change, and that the public is increasingly likely to believe the problem is real and significant. Examples like Lukowiak’s shine a light on the highly personal process of changing one’s mind, illustrating how the influences of family, friends, community, and social media can all influence how people form new opinions.

I spotted an exchange between the two friends on the InsideClimate News Facebook page and reached out to learn more about their story. They agreed to join a video call, which was the first time they’d spoken in nearly 30 years.

‘The science just kept growing’

People’s initial opinions about climate change often mirror the values of their families. Lukowiak is a clear example of this pattern: “I come from a family of hardcore Republicans,” he said on the video call, explaining that his family members believed climate change was a hoax. “That’s kind of what I grew up in, but I really didn’t preach it, just because that’s all I knew,” he said.

Lukowiak, 44, is a pharmacist. He’s married and has a 13-year-old daughter. Indiana has been his home for his whole life, and he has a soft-spoken, Midwestern ease about him. “My introduction to climate change was with Al Gore, when it used to be called global warming,” he said. “I just remember my parents and my brother – they were big non-proponents of that vice president. And I just kind of got rubbed the wrong way with it, I guess.”

“I didn’t think it struck a chord with me until the science just kept growing,” he recalled. He began to worry about the harm that climate change could cause to animal populations, ecosystems, and future generations.

For liberals, ‘it’s de facto we agree with climate change’

Pettitt family
Jeremy Pettitt and family. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Pettitt.

Pettitt hails from the opposite side of the political spectrum. “I come from the liberal background; I’m more the Democrat,” he said. Pettitt is 45, married, and a stay-at-home dad for his 4-year-old son. A self-described introvert, Pettitt finds comfort in being well-informed but also has a healthy appreciation for what he doesn’t know. He describes the liberal sphere: “It’s de facto we generally agree with climate change, but most times we don’t comprehend the details enough to know why or what we agree on.”

When his son was born, Pettitt became motivated to learn more about the changing climate and how it might disrupt the next generation. He began studying the topic. “I tried to take it all in, and then I tried to figure out what’s scientifically correct,” he said.

Change began at church

Lukowiak’s decision to broaden his perspective, rather than doubling down on his position, is a departure from the way many issues have become increasingly polarized in America today. He described his increasing acceptance of climate science as “an awakening.” What prompted his detour? “The church,” Lukowiak said.

He rounded out his explanation: “Like Jeremy, I’m a Christian, and our church is kind of bucking the system of a traditional evangelical church. We’re addressing a lot of issues like racial reconciliation and growing up in white America, trying to become a more multicultural, multiethnic church.”

The open-mindedness that began in church influenced other issues in Lukowiak’s life. “That started maybe five years ago, and not only tackled things with religious connotations and ideologies, but it branched out ever more, and that’s when climate change caught my attention,” he said.

Climate change was not one of the specific subjects raised in Lukowiak’s parish. “That’s not something that’s preached on Sunday, unfortunately,” he said, adding with a laugh, “but I think it would be cool.”

‘I definitely believe in the science now’

Meanwhile, Pettitt delved into climate change articles, which led to interactions over social media, where he occasionally locked horns with Lukowiak’s twin brother. Lukowiak opted not to engage with his brother directly, but he took careful note of the way Pettitt did so. Lukowiak appreciated Pettitt’s approach. “I always noticed that he debated very fairly, and just with facts,” he said.

After observing Pettitt in action, Lukowiak became increasingly interested in learning about climate change, leading him to reach out for some guidance. He asked Pettitt for reliable places to learn more. “I just want to get started in this,” Lukowiak recalled.

Pettitt recommended the non-partisan environmental news organization InsideClimate News, and Lukowiak began reading. He recalled that he was able to learn about climate topics without feeling a threat to his ideology. “As a person that was a critic of climate change,” he said, “I never felt like I was being attacked.” Lukowiak found the articles to be presented in a scientific way that made sense to him. “They don’t come from an angle of wanting to trap you into thinking a certain way. It was pretty non-biased,” he said.

Around the same time, Lukowiak changed his opinion on climate change. “I’m no expert, but I definitely believe in the science now and take it a little bit more seriously,” he said.

‘Moving more moderate’

Climate change is one of many issues where people’s views on the subject tend to align with their overall political stance. In some cases, such as my previous story about John Kaiser, a new outlook on climate science goes hand-in-hand with a wholesale shift in political ideology. Lukowiak’s evolution is more nuanced.

“I’m moving more moderate,” Lukowiak explained. “Yeah … that’s taking a little bit more time. My other family members are a lot more right-leaning, but I probably will depart from that party in the near future.” Lukowiak spoke carefully, searching for words to reflect a political identity in flux. Of the Republican Party, he said, “They have great ideas, but I think they use certain positions to advance their agenda that I don’t think are right,” he said. He paused reflectively, then added, “I’ll just leave it at that.”

But Lukowiak sees no conflict in being a Republican who is concerned about climate change. “Moving to agree with climate change had nothing to do with my position with maybe going away from the Republican Party,” he said.

‘It’s more than Priuses and light bulbs’

While both Lukowiak and Pettitt grapple with the seriousness of climate change, neither has a clear vision of how to address it. Pettitt feels the problem is driven by capitalism, and solutions need to be top-down, originating within government. “It’s more than Priuses and light bulbs,” he said. “I’m searching for an answer myself. It doesn’t look easy.”

Lukowiak echoed Pettitt’s reasoning. “I do think it’s going to have to start somewhere in the government,” he said. He drew a parallel to other threats to the nation: “When we were at war, the war on terrorism, we created a cabinet position – Homeland Security – and I think there might have to be some kind of new cabinet space created.” Lukowiak noted the intense polarization in political circles, but added, “We’re going to have to rally around something.”

Thinking forward

For these childhood friends, it’s the thought of the next generation that motivates them to confront climate change.

Lukowiak was particularly struck by how Pettitt views climate change in the future tense. “He’s thinking, ‘What is my child going to have to deal with when they’re our age? What kind of world are they going to live in?’ That’s something I never even thought of,” Lukowiak said. “It got me thinking, ‘What can I do right now to try to better my child’s future?’”

Pettitt nodded resolutely. “Amen,” he said.

Have you changed your mind about climate change? If you’d like to share your story, send an e-mail to 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...