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Climate deniers could be our political allies

It did not rain in my hometown of San Francisco this January. It did not rain at Stanford either—for the first 31 days of the year, we went without a drop of precipitation. That hasn’t happened since 1849. And really, 1849 is just the earliest year for which we have records; for all we know, it’s been hundreds of years since San Francisco was rain-free in January.

Our home is dying. Climate scientists at Stanford believe that this three-year drought is linked to man-made climate change. Though some studies argue that climate change did not cause the drought, but rather just worsened it, one thing is clear: If we do not take massive steps to reverse the effects of climate change, California will be just another place on the list of regions devastated by extreme weather events.

There is a growing sense of frustration and anger as we watch the evergreens turn grey. As the streams dry up and the hillsides wither, one can understand Kurt Vonnegut’s 2005 sentiment: “The good Earth — we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap.”

It is easy to be upset when we think of the corporations, politicians, and voters who refuse to address man-made climate change—the “climate deniers,” who don’t acknowledge the damage we are doing to our planet. With so much at stake, their inaction feels criminal.

Those who join me in outrage know how easy it is to feel righteous in this anger. Climate change, by every indication, is the most monumental issue a single generation has ever faced. If we are to save the planet, we must face this adversity with passion and conviction. It feels natural that this passion against adversity translates into passion against our adversaries—the people who prevent us from fighting climate change.

But in our passion, we often neglect the fact that climate deniers are not actually our adversaries—not really. While politicians like Senator Mitch McConnell may refuse to acknowledge climate change, and actively criticize and attempt to block initiatives to address it, climate deniers aren’t pro-climate change. Can we really believe that anyone wants to see the world ravaged by drought and wildfire and flood? No. We cannot we go so far as to demonize these people as plutocrats intent on selling off the world for a profit. We must give them the benefit of the doubt.

McConnell, the Kentucky senator, must believe that his position represents the best interests of his constituents. For, even if one believes his anti-climate legislation stance is the result of his big-energy campaign donors, it is hard to deny that his stance is good for his electorate. Kentucky is the third-largest coal producer in the country, and many green initiatives floated in D.C. do indeed amount to what McConnell has called “a war on coal.” Action to address climate change could very well do damage to the livelihood of the people McConnell has sworn to serve.

This puts McConnell—and many other representatives from coal- and oil-rich states—in a tricky position. If they acknowledge climate change, it obligates them to support initiatives to address it–initiatives that may hurt their home economies. This has no doubt led to the “I’m not a scientist” equivocation McConnell and others respond with to questions about climate change.

Before we excoriate McConnell and other climate deniers, we must acknowledge the reality that addressing climate change can hurt people who rely on oil and coal for their livelihoods—it can hurt them, and hurt them badly. Green initiatives do have the potential to devastate portions of the economy. But this does not represent a problem with green initiatives—it represents a problem with our economy.

In the long term, fighting climate change will be economically beneficial. But right now, our economy is not equipped to deal with the transition away from traditional energy sources. Certain sectors—and certain regions—will bear too much of the burden: places like oil-rich Oklahoma, already suffering from decreased oil prices, cannot be expected to deal with the brunt of a conversion to renewable energy without a nationwide shift.

We need to figure out ways to share the economic burden of fighting climate change. There are possibilities: the people who build oil rigs can be trained to build solar plants; coal miners can learn to build wind turbines. Initiatives like these will no doubt carry costs, but these are costs we will bear as a nation, intent on seeing a prosperous future for our country and a sustainable future for our planet.

We cannot accomplish this bright future if we stand divided. In 1994, Carl Sagan wrote, “Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.” Today—like it or not—the people on this earth are the ones with which we will make our stand. We cannot waste time getting angry with climate deniers; they are the very people we need to help us fight climate change. And they need us to help them fight it: These people represent the regions of our country that most desperately need change–rather than berating them with insults, we ought to attempt to cooperate with them. Studies done here at Stanford show that attitudes amongst those who have traditionally opposed action on the climate are already changing. If we continue to cooperate, we will pave the road for climate deniers to become our strongest allies in the fight against climate change.

Contact Jack Herrera at [email protected] 

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