Wednesday, 23 October 2013

If I listened long enough to you - is it time to 'hug a Fuzzy'

I am inclined to believe that the so-called ‘climate change denial’ bloc of the general public (as opposed to those who make a living from ‘denial’), which in the USA is probably over 30% and in the UK is possibly around 25% of the populus, can readily be divided into certain ‘subsets’.

There are the flat-out flat-earthers, the trolls and sock-puppets, whose beliefs are irrelevant (to themselves) and whose motivation for AGW denial is principally mischievous. Basically, these people get their kicks from being provocative and setting up disharmony. The playground equivalent is the self-loathing, trouble-seeking little s***bags who manipulate other kids, through lies and accusations, into fights with one another. These people are fundamentally cowards who never actually fight themselves but instead get a hit from imagining that somehow they are manifesting power; and their cronies, the petty bullies and sneaks whose pleasure comes from being the centre of attention in a very, very small fishbowl, and who need the attention more than they fear the associated shame and self-loathing which normally follows.

Then there are the Idealists, who have strong feelings about ‘them and us’, and who view themselves as ‘outside’, either through disenfranchisement or via an indirect recognition of their existential condition. Such people might tend to emphasise the ‘conspiracy theory’ approach to ‘denialism’: it’s a Government con; it’s an excuse to interfere in Freedoms; it’s a device designed to justify increasing taxation; all scientists are liars, and variations on such themes. For these people, the stance on AGW is not dependent on the reasoning or science related to AGW, but on the implied and feared consequences of concession, which represent both a challenge to the freedom to make up their own minds and an example of ‘big boys’ pushing around ‘us little guys’.

But I tend to think that the largest majority of the people who are unwilling or unable to ‘concede’ to the majority view that AGW is real and has real future problems associated with it fall into neither of these categories (though sometimes their arguments will contain ‘evidence’ from the first or occasional tendencies towards the second).
It is wrong to label all of these people as ‘untrained’ or ‘ignorant’; many, especially at influential levels (advising Governments or Ministers), are highly educated, rational and considered individuals. Some are uncomfortable with ‘science’ as such, but by no means all. These people have ‘reasonable doubts’ and as such are interested in testing both doubt and reason.

In engaging with the larger community (via blogs, for example), much traffic and time is wasted on the first category. In some respects this is necessary, to provide counters to the lies and to run interference on the misinformation strategies. In other respects, it’s a waste of time, especially with the sock-puppets and trolls, since they have no interest in anything but troublemaking, and never offer anything but attempts to disrupt.

The second category is more difficult to have a ‘standard’ approach to. However, it is likely that the underlying motivation for ‘denial’ has a stronger force to the individuals concerned than any possible argument which will contradict their world-view. Given that the AGW call to action has become so heavily politicised in the USA, for example, this is an important segment of the ‘denialosphere’ which cannot be ignored or overlooked completely. But there may be approaches which can address the ideological basis for denial (whatever it happens to be) and seek to find ground where ideology and AGW need not be in contradiction. It’s a tricky one, which will need more investigation at another time.

But the largest ‘denial’ community are not really ‘denialists’ as such – they are instead Uncertains, Fuzzies, Floating Voters; in other words, people unwilling to bow to ‘the Orthodoxy’, with genuine concerns and genuine questions about AGW, in addition to other important issues. For many of these people the question is often less about the reality of AGW as it is the assessment of the risks and costs, not just of AGW mitigation but also of the comparable risks and costs of other important global human issues – population, security, food, health, development, economy.

The most important characteristic of the Climate Fuzzies is that these are basically reasonable people. Or at least, they want to be. With basically reasonable people it is possible to have a basically reasonable – or rational – discourse, to address actual arguments rather than spurious ones, and to deconstruct that fuzziness into component parts which, through discourse, can be argued (in the rational sense). 

To do this requires an openness on the part of both parties – in other words, an inclination to actually pay attention (listen) and respond to the other – rather than wait for the opportunity to talk and simply restate our own beliefs/assertions. It also requires an acceptance before we even start that we are as likely to be wrong in our beliefs as we imagine them to be. This is really hard, but I would suggest that it is critically important. Entrenchment is not the sole domain of the ‘other’ – in fact, without Acceptance we are almost doomed to be entrenched ourselves before we start a dialogue.

And here is my challenge to my ‘friends’ of the blogosphere: Seek out the ‘real’ doubters (they are there, I promise), embrace their uncertainty, and look to find out if their uncertainties do in fact challenge your own fundamental assumptions. Then talk about this. So, in the spirit of positive engagement, let’s ‘Hug a Fuzzy’ as soon as we can.