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Is our (political) climate changing?

By Sean Sevy. Reprinted from Huffington Post

Is climate change real? These days, that’s an issue of warm debate. Speaking of warm, let me suggest that perhaps the most severe issue these days isn’t the warming climate, but the warming political climate. In other words, when we try to have a constructive conversation about a sensitive subject like global warming, the conversation quickly turns hostile. Political climate change is real. So real, that when it comes to political issues in daily conversation, our ability to see the other side is extremely hazy amidst the toxic fumes of polarization. The environment is warming. It’s not at a natural rate. And it is a result of our own actions. So is there hope for reducing this blight?

I recently learned about an event in Salt Lake City called Climate Conversations. The event claimed to put “respectful dialogue” and “differing views about climate change” in the same room. I had never seen this stunt done before, so I signed up. The panel at this event had all the ingredients for what you’d expect to be a catastrophic disaster in climate change debate: an energy advisor for the pro-coal Governor’s Office, a professor at a church-owned University, a climate scientist, a habitat scientist, and a director from a conservative think tank. But they all agreed to be civil. In fact, the event included something called “civility bells,” where if the conversation got out of hand with any type of personal attacks, a volunteer would ring the bell. Alas, this debate did not require civility bells to simmer things down. But I’m sure anyone who wants that type of entertainment from vehement debate can just re-watch last year’s Hillary/Trump debates. For now, we won’t pick at the scab of last year’s debates. But let them be standalone evidence that political climate change is a real thing. I mean, how many times would those guys need a civility bell? But let’s get back to these climate debates.

This climate change panel debated things like: how fast we need to phase out coal, the practicality of renewable energy, and where we need to focus our resources moving forward. But things got really interesting when the moderator took a question from the audience:

“I am frustrated that this has become a liberal vs. conservative issue in our nation. How do we get past this in our state and nation? No one wants to listen to each other.”

This is where the conversation shifted from climate change to political climate change. And to my surprise, this panel was unified on this issue. And from their comments, I will formulate the four principles of actually reversing the drastic effects of political climate change.

The first to answer the question was Dr. Robert Davies, a professor in the Climate Department at Utah State University. He said, “Where I decide to spend my time now, is not so much in conversion. I personally feel that the name of the game is not trying to move immovable objects. I just don’t feel like the returns are that high.”

Principle 1: Don’t be so obsessed with converting your listener to your position, especially when you are talking with a person whose views have been known to be “immovable objects.” You need to see these people as people. But sometimes you also need to see them as gunpowder. Don’t light the match.

The next response came from Dr. Laura Nelson, the Energy Advisor for the Governor’s Office. She said, “I don’t think the labels help to drive the conversation. They are impediments of coming together and being creative and finding solutions.”

Principle 2: The Democrat/Republican label can be a serious impediment if we’re trying to solve real problems. Just focus on the actual issue. That’s it.

And then there was Allison Jones, a biologist who studies how climate change affects habitats. She said, “In the early days there were only a handful of news agencies [ABC, NBC, and CBS]. But today there are [as it were] millions of sources of news on social media, where there’s the danger of these alternative facts.”

Principle 3: Consider where you’re getting your information. Are your political positions shaped by inflamed Facebook posts? Cable news? Talk radio? Your parents? Take a step back and consider if your news sources are shaped by algorithms or politics rather than facts. But where do you get facts, if there is such a thing? This same question was asked at this Climate Conversations event. The answer from many of the non-scientists: National Academy of Science website (nasonline.org). It’s a good place to start.

Next, Derek Monson from a conservative think tank, said, “If you have people of diverse thinking in your circle, go talk to them about these issues. They will probably see things in a way you can’t. They come from different perspectives, different sources, and different life experiences.”

Principle 4: Accept the fact that you can actually learn something insightful from people of different backgrounds, even those you tend to disagree with.

So there you have it: my four principles for reversing political climate change as extracted from this Climate Conversations event. And here’s some good news on the future of our political climate: this model of civil conversation can easily be replicated. This event was hosted by two organizations who are obsessed with harvesting constructive dialogue: Living Room Conversations and Village Square. Living Room Conversations regularly organizes small group conversations of up to six people with different views, and their website provides resources for holding your own event right in your house. Similarly, Village Square puts together public forums where people can eat a meal while listening to a panel of different views on a topic.

It’s undeniable: The political environment is warming. It’s not at a natural rate. And it is, in fact, a result of our own neglect. I’m going to have to go against President Trump on this one: Political climate change is not a hoax.

Sean Sevy is a Mechanical Engineer and a Podcaster. His weekly podcast, Un-Uninformed, covers the news by doing anything from Trump impersonations to political poetry. Listen to his Political Climate Change episode here.