For months, I’ve been reading posts from environmental news sources saying that belief in the existence of climate change has become a “culture war.” Framing the issue this way is destructive because it draws a line in the sand, further polarizing an already divided community.

Notice that I said “a community.” Regardless of political spin, the United States is one community. Our country is a composite community of many parts, some of which disagree with each other. Isn’t internal disagreement typical in any neighborhood, let alone a nation?

If one spends a lot of one’s time on the Internet – as news reporters often do – it’s tempting to generalize the polarization one sees online to the rest of the world. But people do not communicate the same way offline as they do online. Online, discussions become polarized quickly and easily. If I want to resolve a disagreement, I usually take it off the Internet as soon as possible.

I hesitate to frame any ideological disagreement as a “culture war.” Calling a heated discussion a “war” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It tends to escalate the debate rather than reducing tension. And it makes it almost impossible to build bridges.

If David Roberts, Andrew Hoffman and other writers are genuinely interested in resolving the climate change debate and not escalating it, they should skip the military metaphors and start calling the conversation what it is: a controversy. Yes, it’s a culturally loaded controversy. But that is all it is. It’s not a war.

There are more than enough climate scientists receiving violent hate mail as it is. We need to use de-escalating language.

How does one de-escalate conflict to reach solutions? I’ve been studying this topic intermittently for years. Here are some ideas:

  1. Find common ground. What values do you share with the people who oppose you? What can you agree on – at least, provisionally?
  2. Set ground rules about civility and basic respect.
  3. Don’t make assumptions about the people who disagree with you. This is especially true if you have not talked with them and don’t really understand their perspectives.
  4. Take difficult conversations off the Internet. If you aren’t able to do so, moderate online conversations assertively and reduce anonymity. Research has shown repeatedly that online communication is polarizing.
  5. Find ways of getting people out of the “us vs. them” mindset. There are organizations such as Public Conversations Project which specialize in doing this.
  6. Stop seeing the political spectrum as a one-dimensional line between conservative and liberal. The best websites I have seen about political affiliation all agree that there are multiple dimensions to political preference. The Political Compass is a two-dimensional example. There are other models which are more complex.
  7. Get to know people who are different from you in person and preferably offline. Go out in the community and talk to someone who isn’t dressed the same way as you are.
  8. Stop taking things personally. 

With that said, I find it completely understandable that Americans confronted with the need to dramatically scale back their lifestyles in response to an environmental threat would retreat into arguments that aren’t logical, oppose change, and dig in their heels.

We live in a country where wealth, productivity and consumption are highly valued by many people. Expecting our entire national community to suddenly put its values and materially based self-image on hold, even in response to a dire environmental need, would be extremely naive.

The environmental movement needs to offer hope, collaborate, and build constructive solutions in the face of intense fear, global risk, and polarized debate. Let’s stop talking about “culture wars” and start talking about solutions. We need new hope, better ideals, and a value system that doesn’t depend on what kind of car we own.

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