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Q&A with Jonathan Foley, Who Says it’s Time to End the Climate Wars and Find Common Ground

By Keith Kloor,

Last week I read a short essay that washed over me like a fresh breeze. It was a plea by Jonathan Foley, an ecologist (he's a climatologist by training) and director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, to move the climate debate beyond partisan politics and a "rhetorical stalemate." Foley is one of those scientists tackling really complex, interrelated environmental problems (that attest to the challenges of sustainability), and he's not afraid to go against the grain. Although others in the climate arena, from politicians to military leaders, have expressed similar ideas for moving climate discussions to a less contentious space, Foley's status as a scientist makes his essay unique. 

In his piece, Foley states the obvious: "As with many issues in America today, participants in the climate debate have dug in and stopped listening to each other." He offers a number of suggestions on how to end this impasse, which I thought warranted elaboration. So in an email exchange conducted this past weekend, Foley expanded on the themes laid out in his essay.

Q: To get past the "rhetorical stalemate" in the climate debate, you write in the essay that it is time to "stop bashing people over the head with climate science. It just isn’t working with some people. In an age of identity politics, increasing polarization and culture wars, our ability to ignore data that contradict our worldview (or personal interests) is extraordinary." Could you clarify? Because there seems to be an assumption by many in the climate community that not enough climate science is getting out to the public. You know, that if only more people knew the facts about climate change there would be greater public concern. It doesn't seem like you believe this to be the case.

JF: First of all, I believe that we must continue to tell the climate science story, as clearly and as effectively as possible. That's our job as scientists. And I applaud Climate Central, and other organizations, for doing a good job of this. 

But I also think that much of the science — as currently presented — isn't going to reach many people, especially those who have already decided that the science is wrong and that scientific messages should not be trusted. This is especially true after the whole Climategate episode. There is a large echo chamber out there, where climate change is portrayed as a fantasy, and more science alone isn't going to get through.  

So I advocate taking a paired approach: spread the science message far and wide, but complement it with other ideas — especially about how we must also consider national security, the economy and other energy-related issues. These are completely valid (and extremely important) issues too, especially during a period of economic upheaval and international uncertainty. And two complementary messages are better than one, especially when a large fraction of American has become tone deaf to the climate message alone.

Q: In your essay, you suggest varied courses of action that seem tailored to appeal to a broad demographic. For example, you write, "Why not work to boost innovation, the economy, disaster preparedness and national security, and be pleasantly surprised when greenhouse gas emissions and vulnerability to climate change go down, too?" Could you be a bit more specific and explain which of these things best points the way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

JF: As I said in the essay, it turns out that most Americans — whether on the left or the right — agree on the essentials of rebuilding our energy system. Whether you are motivated by climate change, national security, losing jobs in your community, or just being tired of high gas prices, we all know that we need to think differently about energy. That provides a great platform to build constructive solutions together.

Let me be clear about something, though: some folks seem to think that it's disingenuous to talk about energy issues instead of focusing on climate change alone, as if national security and economic issues are just ways of "rebranding" climate change. But that's nonsense, and misses a key point: these energy issues, by themselves, are equally important to the world as climate change. As I see it, we have a perfect storm of economic, security and environmental issues — all driven by our reliance on the current energy system — and they all need solving.

Climate change is not the only issue here. Our energy problems are all important, and worth talking about. So what's wrong with putting other energy issues on the table?

Q: You offer a piece of advice that seems directed at people who share a common goal — decarbonizing the economy and restricting greenhouse gases — but who disagree strenuously on how to go about it. I'm referring to when you say that, "it’s more important to solve the problem than win an argument. In contentious circumstances we sometimes put more emphasis on 'winning' than on finding an answer."  Any suggestions on who can best lead by example? Absent that, what about a meeting of the minds, where disparate players are brought together to hash out their philosophical and policy differences?

JF: I wish I knew the answer to this. I don't. Centrist leaders are pretty lonely right now.

But I know from my personal experience, and speaking to thousands of regular people in the U.S. and beyond, that centrist approaches ultimately do reach people. While the climate change message has a hard time getting through to a lot of Americans right now, I can tell you that economic and national security issues resonate with nearly every person I have ever talked to, especially those from a more conservative political background. It turns out that we all have a lot of common ground, if we could just avoid having it torn apart by ideologues on the left and right.

Q: You also write, "Why not approach the debate from another direction, and be happy that we find allies instead of adversaries?" I thought President Obama, in his last State of the Union Address, was doing this when he emphasized the need for clean energy innovation without explicitly tying it to the cause of global warming. But he was pilloried by many liberal bloggers and climate activists for taking this tack. Obama seemed to reinforce this strategy in his recent speech on "energy security," but again he was criticized by many in the climate community. How do you propose overcoming this reluctance to approach the climate issue "from another direction"? 

JF: To me, addressing the problems of climate change and fixing our nation's economy are both high priorities.  Does any serious person disagree?   Really? 

So, then, why is it a problem to be talking about energy technology, innovation and policy from an economic point of view, especially when we're in the middle of a recession, and have civil wars in the Middle East?  

Like Obama, I honestly believe that spurring more energy technology and innovation is good for our country, especially in terms of jobs, our economy and our national security. He's right. And, as a scientist, I know that this is also one of the necessary steps we need to take to address the challenges of climate change.  

So if, during a major recession and the outbreak of widespread political instability, the President chooses to emphasize the economic and security benefits of new energy investments and policies, instead of the climate benefits alone, who can honestly blame him? I suspect that, as a centrist, Obama is genuinely trying to solve the nation's problems, rather than win some idealogical argument.  And I happen to agree with him.  Others don't; fair enough.

Q: Any parting advice for climate skeptics and climate activists?

JF: As you can tell from the little essay I wrote, I'm not interested in getting in the middle of the long-running war between climate skeptics and climate activists. I'm tired of the whole thing, and am looking for some pragmatic solutions instead. I'm a lot more interested in reaching across these old divides, rolling up our collective sleeves, and getting to work on issues that we can agree on. If others would rather shout and argue — and waste more years and decades — that's their right.  But I would rather solve the problem. And I wish others would too.