NPR: How Do We Talk to the Dangerous Idiots Who Disagree With Us?

October 17, 2018

I listened to a remarkable bit of self-parody on National Public Radio on Tuesday: a moderator, a pair of experts, and some very earnest listeners trying to figure out how to most politely tell climate change skeptics they are dangerous idiots.

Yes, on NPR's "1A," finding a way to convert those neanderthals, or at least move the "conversation" in the right direction, was the topic of nearly 40 minutes of chatter that was at times quite unintentionally funny.

To be clear, this program was not about debating the existence of climate change. That was already settled for everyone whose head isn't stuck in a microwave. This was about talking to pea-brains who do not fully believe drastic policy changes are required to combat climate change, and—this is important—having these "conversations" in a way that would not frighten or anger these stunted children.

That the entire segment presupposed that the panelists are so much smarter, wiser, more virtuous than skeptics—or "deniers," to borrow that creepy nomenclature—and thus, extremely condescending, seemed to escape everyone involved. Let's dig in.

Said moderator Joshua Johnson at the outset:

Clearly climate change is tough to discuss, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its existence. Or maybe because of that evidence. I mean, think about it. If someone tried to hit you over the head with a bunch of facts and figures, supremely confident that they are right and you are wrong, how would you feel? Or, if someone flat out refused to hear you out, despite the facts being really clear, and just dug in their heels to avoid feeling like they lost an argument, what would that be like? We want to elevate this debate, to change the way we talk about climate change.

The guests: Dr. Sarah Myhre, the founder of the Rowan Institute and a "public feminist"—her words—and Paul Bledsoe, an American University lecturer and former climate adviser to the Clinton White House.

Bledsoe took a question from a caller who wondered why President Trump and other skeptics are so "adamantly ignorant" on the issue, and he warned of not talking about it in terms that are too science-y.

"We who talk about climate change have to talk about it differently. We can't make it a technocratic or scientific issue," Bledsoe said.

The moderator asked Myhre if it was fair to call climate change skeptics "adamantly ignorant" because they are so confused by the darn oil companies.

"I wouldn't characterize folks like that," she said. "Part of my job as a scientist is to speak to people with empathy and with dignity, and the people that are on the fence—this public conversation has been so distorted across this partisan space because of how well-funded the interests from fossil fuel and oil companies have flooded the market of ideas with distortive narratives, and so it makes a lot of sense that people are skeptical ... People are trying to respond appropriately to the environment of the discourse around them, and it's profoundly confusing."

Bledsoe later struck a contrast between the people who know better and the people who are "genuinely confused about the issue and need to be informed."

"There are certain people who actually know and are doing it for manipulative purposes, and those people, Exxon and other oil companies, knew about the problem in the 1980s and covered it up and denied it, and there are certain political actors who do that today," he said. "That's different from Americans who are genuinely confused about the issue and need to be informed and need to be reached culturally where they live, and I think that's an important point."

After Bledsoe referred to Trump as a "climate wimp," Johnson asked if "name-calling" was "helpful."

"He's a defeatist. You've got to call them like you see them," Bledsoe said. "We can't sugarcoat the truth when we come to the American people's safety, security and economic future."

Myhre was more scathing and then neatly shifted into how gender dynamics fits into all this, showcasing what I'm assuming she learned in Intersectionalism 301 at UC-Davis.

"My view is that we need to indict public leaders who are trafficking in science denial as a form of misconduct and a form of putting the American public into danger," she said. "However, I do think that we as scientists have engaged nonstop in trying to confront denialism and often that engagement is a very—it's coded male power brokering that is very problematic in the culture because it pits people against each other instead of focusing on shared values."

I don't know what that meant, but I give her an A-plus for sheer guff.

Then we got to some of the people calling and emailing in with their experiences scolding their stupid friends about climate change.

Melissa wrote:

For my Bible friends, I remind them that we are called to be good stewards of the Earth. Nothing the environmentalists are suggesting would cause harm. For my fiscally conservative friends, I talk about the economics. Green power is more profitable and is the future economy. More jobs, better jobs. Saving the Earth for their grandchildren is way down on the list.

I'm assuming "Bible friends" is liberal shorthand for Christians. You know, those people who go to "church" and worship "Jesus."

Then Kaitlyn—Caitlyn? Katelyn?—left a phone message that said (I swear this is word for word):

I recently graduated with my Bachelor's in environmental science, and I'm very interested in protecting the environment and teaching others about climate change. I want to know ways in which I can better explain myself to others, just regular people who might not have the education that I have about climate change, because from where I'm standing, it's blatantly obvious what's going on, and it just seems like we really need to come together and actually make a change, or there's going to be a really bad end.

Environmental science majors a year out of college asking NPR's advice on speaking to "regular people?" Tom Wolfe would have found this too broad.

Later on, Katie emailed to dunk on her dad for being sad about Hurricane Michael but not sharing her views:

My family has vacationed in Mexico Beach (in Florida) for 20-plus years, and we have many friends and loved ones from Panama City who have lost everything (meaning in Hurricane Michael). My father is a disbeliever of climate change and has been very upset about losing a place we love so much. He won't consider that just maybe, there is a greater thing at play here. What is it going to take for this to change? How do we, those who are convinced it is happening, change the way we talk about it, and rather than shutting down the conversation, nurture it?

Myhre called that a "really, really great question" and proceeded to explain that there are certain people who might not have the mental ability to process the enormity of climate science. She would know. She was one of them:

I got exposed to the science of climate change when I started graduate school, and it took me, like, six years to integrate the scale of difficulty of that information, and people can get exposed to the science of climate change, and they can be in such a vulnerable place that it's actually potentially dangerous for students and people who are struggling with mental health issues, so the way that we unpack this, I think, is through relationship and trust and empathy. Because, as we interact as individuals and we come to terms with the scale of the change and the crisis, you can have a lot of really basal emotions and fear, anger, anxiety. All of these pieces that we all shunt away from those very challenging emotions, and often, when we feel those emotions, we shunt into our partisan corners, where we think we know the way the world is, and we become ever more entrenched in our existing worldview, and that's why being honest that, yeah this is a really difficult conversation, and that's exactly why we're having this conversation, is one of the ways to start.

The discussion moved on to figuring out how to talk to people who are fatalistic about climate change and think "we're all going to die anyway." Myhre said, "We're living a science-fiction fantasy right now," but to also take inspiration from activists who are fighting on the issue, while Bledsoe remarked it was time to help Republicans back into the right-thinking fold.

After extensive remarks from Bledsode about the nitty-gritty of removing super-pollutants and preventing enough warming in the short-term from reaching a tipping point, Myhre eventually circled back to gender. This, again, is verbatim:

 I mean, you can talk about the science until you're blue in the face right? But then when we are actually trying to sit in relationship with people, that's a two-way street. That is an experience where you have to listen in order to engender trust and relationship, and part of the piece around this is that realizing as scientists, we're trying to broker power and authority in the public. We're trying to gain agency and authority, in order for the science that we are stewarding to be integrated into public decision-making. But that piece around brokering for power, man, you gotta get curious about that, right? Because there's all sorts of lines that divide our culture around, who is trusted? Who gets buy-in? Who has authority? And that's why, as a feminist, as a public feminist, I use a feminist lens to think about how scientific information is brokered in the public, and how I, as a woman scientist, have—I'm constantly reframed as unqualified to broker information in the public, and so if we want to talk about integrating science into public policy and developing trust, we really want to get more and more curious about what—why are voices being eliminated from the public forum? Why do we have such a partisan, distorted narrative?

Bledsoe interrupted to say the U.S. problem with climate change was unique in its political and cultural aspects, but Myhre responded:

I would agree with that, but I just want to reflect back again that the entire world, by and large, and the world's global resources are run by men, and those decisions are made by men, and so one of the fundamental aspects of solutions for climate change has to do with anti-racism and anti-misogyny, and that is at a global level. The closer we get to an equitable and safe society for everyone, specifically for the rights of girls and women, then that's a component of the pathway for us to get to climate solutions.

"Don't disagree with that at all," Bledsoe muttered.

The story didn't end with the panel, however. Later on, Myhre took to Twitter to vent that she had decided, after the fact, she had been disrespected.

I'm sorry she didn't have a good time, because I certainly did.

I'll close in noting that I was saddened to hear that someone who's so eager to talk to climate change science doubters had blocked Free Beacon chairman and "Right and Righter" star Michael Goldfarb on Twitter (he has never interacted with her). As anyone who has listened to our podcast knows, if anyone needs saving, it's him.

Published under: Climate Change , NPR