The not unexpected news that the new United States administration is withdrawing from the Paris Climate agreement made me reflect on my own journey, from a decided skeptic to a lukewarm believer who keeps an open mind.
The mid-1990s were all the rage with the rather new “global warming” phenomenon; those were also the days of my undergraduate studies at a university, smack dab in the middle of conservative, “red” America.
By nature and intuition conservative myself, it didn’t take too much imagination on my part to align myself firmly in the camp of those who found the whole alarmism about rising temperatures to be a tad overbearing.
I mean, did they not notice how cold our winters were, with each successive one showing no sign of letting up on the previous one’s record lows on the mercury scale?
Charlie changed me
But then, there was Charlie.
A fourth generation Kansan with a Republican pedigree going back to almost the very founding of the party, my friend Charlie checks all the boxes that certify someone as a conservative Republican in America: Suburban, white, taciturn, suspicious of too many government programs or too much government meddling in the market, small businessman, believer in a muscular national security policy, etc.
He has also been one of the earliest environmentalists that I have personally known, from the very time that we were in college together.
He rarely rebuked my blasé attitude towards the environmental movement in general and the global warming phenomena in particular, but did do three things that, over time, contributed to my rethinking.
One, in his personal life, he was (and is) fastidious about caring for the environment; for example, while the rest of us schlepped around and discarded Styrofoam cups for our endless gallons of daily coffee, Charlie used his mascot-adorned insulated mug for his caffeine year after year.
Two, he made a good capitalistic argument long before Bill Clinton copied it: If we invest in companies that are into alternate energy and the whole global warming thing is a hoax, have we really lost much, especially when compared to the converse being a possibility?
Three, Charlie appealed to a certain vanity in me when he would often tease me that for an ostensibly educated man, I certainly seemed to have the certitude of a boorish “I believe therefore it must be” type.
Education is not enough
Yes, I am educated; heck, I have a doctorate in social enterprise and business.
But mere education itself doesn’t automatically make someone open to critical thinking. It can help, though.
Over the years since my undergraduate days, I have slowly but surely evaluated and looked for evidence in the best tradition of the scientific method as it is applicable to time-series phenomena: The hypotheses, predictive modeling, and its fine-tuning in light of evolving data, the peer reviews, and the scientific consensus.
A sustained multi-decade, multi-generation effort to fight climate change requires appealing to the instincts, vanities, and self-interest of average people
That the data also indicates a possible existential threat from climate change to the polar bear -- a species that I am very fond of -- adds a personal element to my search for defensible conclusions on climate change.
My views have slowly, steadily, methodologically evolved even as I remain quite content in my fossil fuel-loving habits like driving a gas guzzling SUV. And today, I can certainly say that while I am no passionate advocate of heavy handed policies to reverse climate change, I am sympathetic to those who are open to trying market-based solutions to the very real possibility that the predictions of climate scientists are realistic in the absence of any concentrated action.
There’s still hope
For those who are upset that the Paris Climate Agreement has taken a hit, I advise not to be too pessimistic: At the end of the day, the agreement was a voluntary framework at best. Most major global businesses in every continent -- including the biggest American business brands -- are already following through on their promises of reducing carbon footprint.
But the battle has to be won in the hearts and minds of people, far more than at seminars and parliaments. A sustained multi-decade, multi-generation effort to fight climate change requires appealing to the instincts, vanities, and indeed self-interest of average people.
It is not an easy task. But it is possible and, frankly, the only approach that can create sustainable climate change solutions customised to different countries and cultures.
If I can overcome being a climate change skeptic, (almost) anyone can. But it won’t happen by being condescending and using rhetorical bludgeons.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and social sciences instructor in Kansas, USA.