Framing the Debate: An Interview on Climate Change, Social Stratification and the Status Quo (by G Yahya Haage and M Sers)

This is the second in a series of blog posts describing an experience talking about climate change.  An important lesson that came out of the Climate Justice Field Course and the Interview Skills Group was the necessity to properly understand the perspectives of those with opposing views.  Relatedly, an understanding of how the encounters between climate change deniers and climate activists play out in everyday settings is extremely valuable. To this end, several individuals were interviewed about interesting encounters they have experienced. The following is a discussion with E4A student Martin Sers, who also helped edit and co-write this piece.


GYH: As you know, we are interviewing individuals about encounters with climate change deniers they feel are significant or illustrative. So, why don’t you tell us a bit about your example?

MS: Sure, so tiny bit of back history. At the time, I was working as an environmental econometrician in consulting and had been recently accepted into my PhD program in ecological economics. I’m living in the UK and I’m going to visit some of my family over there for the first time. It is a relatively innocuous setting, quite fun. I meet my uncle and we drive by what is an enormous stack of coal that was either being processed for distribution or for use in an electricity generation plant.

[In a] throwaway comment, he mentioned [the plant owners] had to build a fence to keep the radicals from trying to shut the plant down.

So I thought, “Uh oh, this discussion is veering into somewhat dangerous territory.” I mean, I’m almost one of those radicals. And so, I asked him more or less if he thought there was something to these radicals’ views.

The answer was an emphatic no.

So, I asked him why not.

Essentially what comes across [from the discussion] is that this is social behavior that is unacceptable. And the reason why they are doing it, climate change, doesn’t exist. So there was no connection between the mountain of coal that was being burnt and any of the negative effects.

And so here I am, a very young career researcher, very into this certain issue, and on a simple discussion with a family member I was forced to become silent because I made the choice of good familial relations over pushing a point I actually believed in. And that’s a weird decision to make, especially when it counters your deeply held beliefs.
So, this is entirely compounded by the fact that the UK is somewhat classist in nature and this gentleman was of an upper middle class background and the activities of those people protesting climate change were often looked at poorly from that angle as well.

GYH: What made you think that there was this link in his mind between the social classes and the environmental movement?

MS: That’s an interesting question that I can’t answer with a great deal of evidence. But my experience in the UK was quite shocking on some levels with just how class stratified the country was. And in some sense, “Proper” people didn’t overly question the status quo.

Essentially, it’s a status quo thing. Here is a person who is quite comfortable with his place in society, he’s well off, his friends are well off. [In contrast], these eco-radicals clearly represent a threat to the status quo. It’s an ideology that simply can’t be reconciled. And so, from his perspective, what they believe in, climate change, and their actions get conflated and the entire thing becomes a farce.

GYH: So, would you say he rejected climate change entirely?

MS: With a reasonable degree of confidence, I would say he had no room for the annoyance of climate change. One can easily derive that from the fact that there was precisely no concern for what these people were trying to do. He was not a malicious denier, but a “comfortable denier,” who doesn’t want to question why this activity is taking place. He also had the standard list of claims, like the threat being overblown.

GYH: How was his tone and the tone of the conversation? Was there any hostility or did he just assume that his way of thinking was just a fact and the norm?

MS: Well, it is an interesting point that probably a lot of climate denier interactions are not as we anticipate them to be; overly hostile. [Rather], they come in situations where there is a great deal of other social forces at play. So, he was quite pleasant and I was quite pleasant. We had never met each other before, and we were family so we had to be extremely careful on how we danced around this subject. So, here is what is potentially, if I may be slightly hyperbolic, one of the more important issues ever to face humankind and the basics of familial relations stepped in and made the discussion essentially impossible. But, who am I, having met this person for the first time, who is far older than I am, well established, to just question the basis of that person’s thought? It was just incredibly difficult. But I would argue that this kind of suppression of vigorous debate is more common than the kind of more open and hostile conflict.

[Most] or at least some, climate change discussions are not necessarily a place for open hostility and the kind of guns blazing, scientific approach, which is useful when you want to make yourself clear. This strategy is not always useful and often counterproductive if these discussions involve family, you have to tread carefully. It is interesting the extent to which beliefs can be subverted by the basics of family.

I am 100 % confident that his views were no different than before the discussion and my views have evolved since to understand perhaps why that may be the case, but I think both parties left as they started.

GYH: Thanks again for sharing this experience.

MS: You’re welcome.


Gabriel Yahya Haage is pursuing a PhD in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences. His research interests focus on methods to equitably partition water resources between various human needs, such as agriculture, industry, and human health, while seeking to maintain a functional ecosystem.

Martin Sers is pursuing a PhD in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. He is keenly interested in new approaches to the study of macroeconomics that consider the physical and ecological dimensions of economic activity and the limiting role these play.

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