On the finiteness of the planet, and of life (by Tim Crownshaw and Alice Damiano)

During the Cohort 3 field course on climate justice (Toronto, May-June 2017, organized by York University) a question was circulated among participants:


Can you tell me about an encounter you had with someone who had a very different opinion on climate change or other social issues, and how you reacted to it?

Climate Justice Field Course Participants 2017

This is the first of a series of blog posts that describe the experiences of those who kindly volunteered to tell their stories. We aim to do this to explore ways that we can better communicate with those people who might not share our views or understand the path we have taken. Let’s start with a story related by Tim Crownshaw, an E4A PhD student at McGill University.

In this case, the conversation was between Tim and his father, and it was a reoccurring discussion which started about 5 years ago, then evolved, and finally ended in 2015. The discussion was on the issue of anthropogenic climate change, its existence, its causes, and its seriousness.

Relatively abruptly around 2012, Tim’s father began voicing skepticism regarding climate change. He believed that there was an exaggerated alarmism around it and that climate scientists were just cynically seeking more funding for their research. He referred to the fact that similar changes have happened in the past for natural reasons, and claimed that he remembered summers being hotter during his childhood. Tim on the other hand, was convinced of the existence of climate change and his initial reaction to his father’s position was one of astonishment and some hostility. Tim had studied climate change, knew its magnitude and the human causes behind it, and was working in a sector related to it. In response, Tim presented scientific evidence, including copies of IPCC reports, which seemed to have little impact on his father’s position. Tim initially felt somewhat insulted and could not understand why his father was not trusting him.

Being father and son, the two saw each other periodically, and over the years the climate change topic was raised many times, sometimes in serious conversations, sometimes as a joking provocation. After a while, the conversation became less hostile and the two found some common ground. It evolved when Tim decided to change his strategy, by delving deeper into the narrative his father was holding, emphasizing risk, and bringing the precautionary principle into the conversation. Tim asked questions such as:

  • What is the likelihood that climate change is simply a hoax perpetrated by experts, when such a large majority of climate scientists agree on the basic science?
  • Would this strategy secure more funding for their research, or would it simply ruin their credibility?
  • Given the risks of catastrophic impacts posed by climate change, is it not better to stay on the safe side, to take precautions and try to mitigate it?
  • Would this not lead to numerous improvements in our lives anyway?

And most importantly,

  • Are you willing to gamble with the prospects of your grandchildren, and their children, by insisting that we shouldn’t take any action?

These questions, interrogating narrative, and emphasizing risk and precaution, worked much better than the previous attempt – showing scientific evidence and expecting it to speak for itself. Indeed, Tim’s father eventually admitted that Tim might have a point and the discussions ended with that.


Looking back

Tim reflected a lot on this experience with his father and on the possible causes of their disagreement. At first it came as a shock to Tim because he and his father usually had a similar outlook on most topics. What Tim didn’t know when the disagreements began, was that his father had recently received a diagnosis confirming that the cancer he had beaten several years earlier had returned, and the odds weren’t good. Tim now thinks that the shock of this bad news and facing his own mortality had an important role in determining his father’s susceptibility to certain ideas. Indeed, Tim believes that his father was overwhelmed by the awareness of having little time left, and that having a strong sense of duty as a retired naval officer who had travelled the world, couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the legacy of climate change to his children and grandchildren. The guilt probably activated a psychological self-defence mechanism in his father’s mind which prevented him from having to deal with this, in addition to the uncertainty of his own condition.

Tim believes there was another factor that affected his father beliefs: a morning radio program he was routinely listening to – Mike Hosking Breakfast, a conservative radio program popular among the baby boomer generation in New Zealand. Listening to this program every day slowly placed the seed of doubt regarding climate change which would later become an escape from guilt.

Sadly, Tim’s father passed away not very long after these conversations happened, and they were never able to truly reconcile their different points of view on the matter.


What can we learn from Tim’s experience?

First, that science may speak to some of us, but it does not speak effectively to everybody, and we must keep this in mind when we communicate climate change and other environmental problems. Relatable points on right action and obligations to others may work better than invoking expert opinion.

Second, that exposure to consistent messages delivered via mass media can complicate communication and lead to diverging views. Critically, it provides the seed that may then sprout when a person’s situation compels them to seek an escape.

Third, that we are all fallible, with our stories, our struggles, and our experiences. We change over time, together with our views and priorities. Most of us know how it is to be a graduate student or a researcher in the sustainability, environmental and social sciences. Most of us also know how it is to be young and idealistic, and to care about leaving the world a better place for future generations. We owe them the means to have a satisfying life, or at a minimum, one that is healthy and safe. This is a commitment now threatened by climate change.

When relating to others, we (as students, researchers, activists, and people who care about the environment and society…) have two tasks:

The first is to realize that we are surrounded by people who may have different priorities informed by their own problems and fears. Indeed, through the twists and turns that life brings, people with similar principles do not always arrive at the same conclusions about the world. They may be our allies if we manage to connect with them and if we realize that under different circumstances they may have already been standing with us.

The second is to reflect on the roots of our motivation. What makes us care about the environment the way we do? Would we care all the same, if we were in a different situation, or at a different moment of our lives?



Alice Damiano and Tim Crownshaw are PhD students at McGill and are with the E4A project. Click here for their bios.

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