Changing Climate Beliefs with Jenn Marlon and Bob Inglis

This episode, part of our season-long look at the unexpected stories and effects of climate data, features two conversations about what people believe about climate change and what causes them to change those beliefs. First, we talk to Jenn Marlon to get an update on the changing numbers in the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s Six Americas survey. Then, we talk to former Representative Bob Inglis, who very publicly changed his beliefs on climate change, and now works to convince other fellow conservatives to support action on climate change.

Show Notes

Find out more about our guests, Jenn Marlon and Bob Inglis.

Visit Global Warming’s Six Americas for maps, data, and more from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Plus, you can see what category you’re in with their Six Americas Super Short Survey (SASSY).

If you want to hear more from Jenn Marlon, check out our first conversation with her on Warm Regards, from April of 2018:

For more on environmentalists and how they vote (and often don’t vote), listen to our 2018 conversation with Nathaniel Stinnett from the Environmental Voter Project.

“Climate Is Taking On a Growing Role for Voters, Research Suggests,” the New York Times story that talks about the rising position of climate change as an issue public.

Find out more about the work of the two scientists who shared their data stories with us, Dr. Rachel Tilling and Dr. Kaustubh Thirumalai.

Inspired by the data story you heard and want to share yours with us? We’d love to hear it. You can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286 or record yourself and email it to us at ourwarmregards@gmail.com.

For a full transcript of this episode, please see below.

Jacquelyn Gill
When I was a little kid, I remember my dad teaching me how to find the circumference and area of a circle. It was like learning a magic trick, or how to throw a curve ball: a secret power that he was passing down to just me. He would often give me logic puzzles or riddles in my lunchbox, and I was supposed to solve them by the time I got home from school — like the one about how to get the fox, the chicken, and the grain over the river, two at a time? There was something comforting, even empowering, about these brain games. It was like when he told me that one of the radio buttons in his black Camaro was a jump button, just so that I wouldn’t be scared going over the big bridge over the river between Maine and New Hampshire. These games brought a sort of order to the chaos of my childhood. It was something I could solve. A problem with a right answer. Something predictable, dependable, and true.

Decades later, when I was a college student learning about climate change, and he was working at a coal-fired power plant, truth got a little muddier. Well, not to me. And not to him, either. We both knew what we knew, and that was that we were right. When it came to climate change, even smart people could be dead wrong. We argued. A lot. I actually think he enjoyed it at first, seeing his little girl all grown up and full of piss and vinegar. But as the years went on, it stopped feeling like good-natured sparring. It started to get emotional and personal. He was watching a lot of Fox News; and I was struggling with how to reach through all the layers of anger and misinformation and just find my dad. The dad that taught me all about how ballistic missiles on nuclear submarines work, or how to bleed the air out of the radiator in my apartment so it wouldn’t wake me up at night. My dad is a smart man, and people tell me he raised a smart daughter. So why were we still fighting about greenhouse gases or wind power?

Eventually I figured out that the problem wasn’t about the brain at all. It was about the heart. I’ve never asked him why he finally came around, grudgingly, to accept that the world is warming, and it’s not part of the natural cycles I research, thank you. I think it helps that he’s proud of me. But I also think it helps that I stopped trying to beat him over the head with facts, and just connected with him as, well, my dad. I picked my battles, I learned some patience. I listened as much as I argued. And while we don’t always agree on solutions, and we definitely don’t agree about politics, we’ve come to an agreement that climate change is real, it’s us, and that we should do something about it. And I’m okay with that.

It’s like it was my turn to give him a logic puzzle: how do you disagree with someone you love so much about something so fundamental to what you believe, that it shakes your sense of yourself? And it only took us a decade to figure it out.

I wouldn’t say things are perfect. I’ve barely talked to my dad in the last six months, because of a fight we got into about racism. We’re slowly building back from it, one tentative text at a time, talking about the weather or our health. Safe things.

But sometimes, there is no coming back. Sometimes, you just have to let someone go. And it sucks, and it hurts like it might never, ever heal. But sometimes, bit by bit, you can pick away at a problem until you eliminate all the other answers, and you realize that you can actually get the fox, the chicken, and the grain over the river, safely, if a bit ruffled, together.

For this episode, we’re bringing you two conversations about belief — first, we dig into some of the highest quality polling data available, which reveal surprising insights about what Americans actually think about climate change, and how that’s changing in encouraging ways. Then, we have a conversation with someone who made a pretty high-profile switch from what he calls “conscious disregard” of climate change to an active, open awareness. I was really surprised by just how well these two conversations dovetailed: at both the national and personal scales, the role of data in changing belief may not be what you think.

Welcome to Warm Regards.

I’m Jacquelyn Gill.

Ramesh Laungani
I’m Ramesh Laungani, a plant ecologist at Doane University in Nebraska.

Gill
Our first guest is Dr. Jenn Marlon, a research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Jenn actually started off as a paleoecologist like me, working on prehistoric fire records. She’s since branched out into the social sciences, using surveys and models to understand public attitudes and behaviors about climate change and extreme weather events.

Jenn it’s really great to have you back on the show. The last time you were on our podcast, which I believe was April of 2018, so much has changed since then. We talked a lot about the idea that in terms of belief on climate change, there’s not just simply these two groups of people who believe in it or those that don’t, but there are in fact, six Americas, six different categories of belief. For folks who might not have heard that first episode. Can you really briefly tell us what are the Six Americas? How is each category defined?

Jenn Marlon
Yes. Sure. Well, thank you for having me back, Jacquelyn. It’s really good to be with you and yeah, those Six Americas are, there’s more nuance than how we usually think of the public, in the States, we often just think they’re Democrats and Republicans. You’re either on one side or the other, or we just think of the public as this one giant sort of undifferentiated mass. Of course, many, many different voices and so through our survey research, we have identified these six different unique groups, and you can think of them as ranging across a spectrum. And so on one end of the spectrum, we have who we call the Alarmed. And as you might guess, those are the people most concerned about the issue. So they know it’s happening, that the earth really is warming. They understand that it’s caused by human activities, primarily, and they understand that it’s not natural cycles and that we can do something about it. And they support aggressive policy interventions and individual actions and a whole variety of actions to try to slow the buildup of emissions and to slow the warming and all of its associated impacts. So those are the Alarmed. And right now, um, those are 26% of the pup of the American population, American adults. Then moving along in the spectrum, you have the Concerned, who are folks who also understand it’s real and it’s human active caused by human activities, but they don’t understand the urgency. So they don’t really understand that there are lags in the climate system, for example, meaning that, you know, what we do today and the actions we take today, you’re going to have very long lasting effects. And if we delay action, likewise, that’s going to have really long lasting effects that’s going to build up over decades. the Concerned, by the way, are 28% today of the population. And then we move towards the middle and we move to the Cautious who are about 20%. And you can think of the Cautious as kind of fence-sitters in terms of even understanding whether the planet’s really warming or not. And if you’re not sure if it’s warming or not, you know, you’re unlikely to understand what’s causing it, is it volcanoes, the su,n people, you know, natural cycles. And so those, we call those the “Fence sitters.” And then 7% a small group group are who we call Disengaged. And Disengaged, this really means there on this issue is not on their radar at all. They don’t have a lot of information about it. They’re not thinking about it. And they want more information. They don’t know a lot. The next group we call the Doubtful. The Doubtful will say, well, maybe the planet is warming, but it probably isn’t. And if it is warming then it’s not human activities. It’s definitely natural. And so, you know, not much to do about it. They don’t support action because why would you address something if you don’t think it’s caused by human activities.

And then finally we come to the far right of our spectrum, which is the Dismissive. And these are folks who say it’s definitely not happening, the planet is not right warming. In other words, global warming is basically a hoax. It’s not real, it’s a, you know, a plot to take away our sovereignty led by the UN or it’s, you know, just Al Gore and his friends trying to make money or all of us scientists, you know, making our own money, which we all know is not true.

Gill
Still waiting for my check by the way.

Marlon
Yeah, planning our expensive getaways. Yeah, so those are the Six Americas ranging from the Alarmed to the Dismissive and what a lot of people think among the public is that it’s really just sort of you’re for or against, and maybe it’s about like 50% for, 50% against. And so when we explain that the Alarmed and Concerned together, those two of the largest groups, make up more than half of the public. And that the Dismissive in particular, um, are 7%. They’re only 7%. It’s a tiny portion of the public. And yet that tiny little portion is really organized and well funded by fossil fuel interests primarily. And they are extremely vocal and they get stuff done in time in terms of, you know, policy and action and delay. And that 7% is very, well-represented in Congress.

Laungani
So Jenn, I’m curious to know, how do you get these data? You know, when you go to the Yale site on Climate Change Communication, when you look at the Program, the data’s very granular. I mean, you have data down to the county level. How do you figure out what Americans believe about climate change at that scale?

Marlon
That’s a great question. So it is a product of science, it starts with a large representative survey of the American public. So at least a thousand people. And we’re polling people twice a year, generally in the fall and in the spring. And we’re asking the same bank of questions plus a whole new segment, which we vary every season. We’re asking new questions all the time, but we’re always asking a few of the same questions over and over again. But we have about 25, over 25,000 people now, altogether, So a thousand people collected, twice a year since 2008. So we’ve been building up this dataset where we’ve been asking people since 2008. “Do you believe that climate or do you think that climate change is happening and what do you think is causing it? How worried are you about it? Do you think it’s going to harm future generations?” for example, and “Do you support different policies like regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant?” So we’ll ask this, this bank of questions and then what we can do is we have people’s locations, their rough locations, um, where they live. And so we can, um, we can then bring in other data from different geographic areas, like from every county from the US Census Bureau. And from election data we can figure out did this county go for Clinton or Trump in the 2016 election?

Laungani
Wow.

Marlon
We can pull in information about income or the percentage of people who have healthcare in that particular county and all this other relevant data. We combine that with the survey data and then we can model people’s opinions basically. So we start with a very rich large survey dataset, but we do then leverage all this other related data that turns out to be surprisingly good at predicting the percentage of people who hold a certain belief about climate change in every county in the country.

Gill
Have there been any other big shifts since, you know, around spring time of 2018? I know so much has happened politically and of course we have an ongoing pandemic and there’s just a lot of other things on people’s minds, but there also seems to be an even greater public awareness of climate change, at least anecdotally in my experience. Is this reflected in the polling or are there categories that are moving or are there categories that are stuck? What do the numbers look like?

Marlon
The numbers are definitely moving. It is not anecdotal. It is supported by the highest quality polling data we have in the US, some of it anyway. Yeah, there is a lot of momentum and it’s one of the areas of, you know, that gives me hope really in terms of our research.I have data, um, from 2014 to 2019, because we often look at the last five years and at least during the last five years, the Alarmed have doubled in size.

Laungani
Wow.

Marlon
And the Dismissive have shrunk almost by half. They went from about 12% to 7%. And there’s some noise, it bounces around a little bit, so they haven’t quite halved, but the Alarmed has doubled, the Concerned has stayed about the same. But the Cautious has shrunk. The Disengaged have been about the same, and the Doubtful and Dismissive have both shrunk.

Gill
That’s hopeful to me, right?

Marlon
Absolutely, absolutely. Awareness is growing and there are, I think there are a lot of reasons for it. Everyone sort of has their own theory and it’s very hard to pin down exactly what’s causing people to change their minds because there is kind of a feedback loop if you will, a positive cycle where you have maybe the public is sort of connecting the dots between some of the extreme weather events and climate change. They feel like they’re experiencing it more. Or maybe part of that is from the media doing their job and connecting those dots for the public. And then we have, you know, opinion leaders and political leaders maybe who are speaking out a little bit more because they’re fed by some of the climate rallies and energy in the public, and just being willing to kind of learn more and to talk about it a little bit more. So there’s kind of all of these positive interactions that build this momentum and are sort of raising the base level of awareness and the base level of concern among the public.

Gill
It sounds like an incredibly powerful data set to have this timeline or this time series of changing beliefs, but you’re not just collecting data on whether people believe in human caused climate change or where they fall on the spectrum. You’re also collecting data on risk perception, support for different policies, and even personal behavior. Is there anything surprising when it comes to how Americans’ beliefs about climate change translates to action, or does it?

Marlon
Yeah, it’s true. We tend to group these data into four categories and you mentioned the basic one is just the basic belief and understanding of the problem itself. Is it real or not? And then the risk perceptions, which is kind of a technical term, it just means basically like, how seriously do you take this issue? Do you think it’s a big threat or not? And we ask a variety of questions around that. Because one of the most surprising things, it’s actually a series of three maps that I like to walk people through. The first map shows the percentage of Americans in every county or every state who believe that global warming will harm future generations. So if I ask you, you know, the average American, or in most places, about 70%, 70 to 71% of Americans will say, “yeah, global warming is likely to harm future generations.” And then if we say, well, “how about people in the United States? Do you think it’s going to harm people here in this country, in the US? Well, now it’s about 61% who will agree with that, which is still a strong majority. But then you can click on this other one, the other question below it, “do you think global warming will harm you personally?” And then the number of drops to 43%. And so the maps all turn blue and the shift is fairly dramatic. Because we have this kind of optimism bias. It’s like we live in little bubbles and think we’re not going to be affected. It’s only people affected by the wildfires in California or the hurricanes in Louisiana, and so we tend to think that it’s not going to affect us when the reality is, all of us are already being, not just affected, but harmed.

Laungani
Right.

Marlon
Even if you look at the dollar cost alone of, of, of the impacts that have been well-documented about that rising sea level and warmer ocean temperatures are causing hurricanes to intensify faster, to move more slowly, to dump more rain, and that’s adding up dollars and it’s also costing lives. It’s a portion of what would happen anyway, because of course we’ve always had hurricanes, but the reality is they’re different today. And the fires, there are more of them and they’re larger and that additional cost is being, you know, we’re all paying for that.

Gill
And you’ve even participated in some research on whether those kinds of extreme events actually do change the perceptions of climate change of climate risk by the people who experience them. So maybe here in Maine, I’m thinking, “Oh, climate change is just something that affects those folks in California with the wildfires, but if I were living in say New Orleans or Sacramento, would I feel differently? What would the models predict about my belief in climate change if I lived in those different places?

Marlon
Yeah, so this is where it gets really interesting. Because it turns out that if you believe that global warming is real and is a serious threat, then, yes, you’re likely to make that connection and say I’m being harmed. Some of the people will. But if you don’t believe that global warming is real in the first place, then how would you be able to link that? Experiencing a wildfire isn’t going to make you suddenly say, “Oh, well, climate change must be real because these fires are more intense and larger than they were in the past. Now I suddenly believe in global warming because I experienced this fire myself.” It doesn’t work that way.

Gill
Wow. So it’s sort of a confirmation bias on either side.

Laungani
Yeah.

Gill
And I’m sorry, I keep, I keep realizing every time I say “either side,” I’m talking to someone who points out that there are six sides, probably more than six sides, right? Yeah, these different perspectives,

Marlon
I mean, certainly you can generalize to some extent. Republicans do tend to be much more skeptical and Democrats tend to be, you know, much more Concerned and Alarmed., And in fact, those changes that I talked about earlier where the Alarmed, the group of Alarmed, has doubled in the past five years, that when you look through a political lens, um, a lot of that is just Democrats who used to be Concerned and some independents who used to be Concerned, but now they’ve moved from the Concerned into the Alarmed group. So it’s, it’s people sort of inching along this spectrum in many cases.

[music]

Laungani
So, for the categories that are moving, what do we know about what’s driving those changes? You know, you highlighted that it might be, you know, particular groups in a particular political party, but do you have any other information to tease apart? Or are you doing any research to tease apart what gets people to shift from one category to another?

Marlon
Yeah, we are studying this. I think in some ways, you know, it’s like the million dollar question.

Laungani
Right!

Marlon
How do you motivate people to care about this issue that many of us feel extremely threatened by? One of the really interesting findings is that more so than experiencing, you know, extreme weather, for example, is actually talking to your friends and family or believing that other people who you know and like and respect think that this is a serious issue and it’s growing more and more important. So it’s basically the cultural norms. It’s social behavior. Because, you know, we’re human, we’re social animals, and we pay a lot of attention to what those people around us are not only thinking and saying, but especially what they’re doing. And so as we see people get more engaged,you know, we see the youth organizing and taking a stand and speaking out and we see political leaders, you know, doing the same.

Laungani
How much do you feel that youth is changing the landscape? You know, you talked about the Six Americas as a survey of adults. How much of the shift that you’ve seen has been because, you know, younger people are now entering the survey pool as it is. What role do you feel they play in shifting the landscape.

Marlon
We’re analyzing some data on this right now because, you know, certainly we’re seeing the youth get really engaged on climate in very, very meaningful ways around the world. And that has been so encouraging. And we are seeing it in the data, but interestingly, we’re seeing it more for Republicans, and I’m sure some of you have heard this too, that young Republicans are really quite out of step with older conservatives. Young Republicans see climate change increasingly as a real threat and they want to do something about it. They’ve learned more about it, so they just have more clarity on its causes and its impacts and its solutions. So that’s really encouraging. And in terms of Democrats, and I know we’re going back to the Democrats and Republicans split here, but, um, but in terms of Democrats, it seems to be older Democrats who are actually becoming more Concerned. These are cultural norms that are shifting, it’s becoming far more acceptable to talk about climate change and far more likely that you’re going to know someone who’s actually joined an organization and taken a step to try to address it or is learning more about climate justice and coming to understand what that means and coming to understand that the most vulnerable among us are going to be the most impacted.

Gill
So it sounds like the conversations that we have with our families or our friends, our neighbors our coworkers are all really important in driving some of these changes. What role do you think climate data has to play in this shift? Do you think people are motivated by, you know, discussions about sea ice trends? Should I be talking about extreme events like record-breaking heat waves or more intense hurricane seasons with the people in my, you know, kid’s daycare or like, what are the sorts of things that, those, what are those conversations that I have with my friends and neighbors look like? Do we know anything about what makes them effective?

Marlon
Yeah, those are great questions. I’m a data nerd. I teach environmental data visualization and communication, so I’m a big proponent of data. I’m also a scientist. So, I think data is vital to this conversation, especially, rigorously collected and analyzed data from the scientific community, you know, that’s why we’re having all these conversations because we actually predicted what’s happening right now. And so of course data is central in that way. But in terms of using data in everyday conversations it also can be very powerful when its numbers are provided in context, when they sort of flesh out an idea. When they make an abstract idea very concret. So knowing that the wildfires that are burning in the West, for example, that the area that they burned a few decades ago is half the size of what’s burning now, that’s a simple number. It used to be half, so the size has doubled. That’s important data. And that data is actually backed up by dozens, if not hundreds of scientists who have worked to gather that statistic and to validate it and to make sure it’s accurate. It’s why telling people about the scientific consensus on climate change, 97% of scientists have looked at the evidence and been convinced that global warming is happening and caused by human activities. Many of us have heard that statistic, and the reason we’ve heard it is because it actually is incredibly powerful to know that scientists are largely in agreement, there is no debate. So I think there’s a huge role for numbers, but it’s important to recognize that numbers have to be part of a story. They have to be part of a narrative, or it’s just like another kind of dry, meaningless number. We have to work a little bit harder, I think, to think about numbers, but when you’re using them to support your story and give it detail, it can be really powerful.

Gill
Well, we’ve been talking a lot about the data about Americans’ belief in climate change. We know that there’s lots of research that suggests that you can have facts about climate change, but those facts don’t necessarily change people’s beliefs on climate change. What is it like to work and really wrestle with this idea about belief and the role that facts do or don’t play in changing people’s behaviors?

Marlon
Yeah, it’s a fascinating process, but it depends what you’re talking about and who you’re talking to, and who the messenger is for that information. Well, when will my facts matter and which facts matter. But, but I think, some people have argued that, you know, it’s not about facts, it’s not about information. And I think you can throw the baby out with the bath water in a sense, if you do that and just say, no, we don’t need any more science and information. No, of course that’s not true. Our whole education system is based on the idea that information and facts do matter and they do change minds.

Gill
For folks who might be thinking, well, what can I do in my community, my family, my neighborhood, to have these kinds of conversations, which are obviously so important. Which of the Six Americas do you think make the most sense for us to devote our time and attention to and how should we go about doing that?

Marlon
I think it’s a very important question. And the answer, you know, is it depends on who you are. For this podcast, and for a lot of people I think already engaged in this, I think it is to focus on the Alarmed or maybe the Concerned and the Alarmed, because while the size of the group is like 26 to 30% or so now, it’s very disorganized. And a lot of those Alarmed folks are not even voting. They may not even be registered to vote. And so that does us no good. The Alarmed, if they were more tightly organized and more coordinated and increasingly folks in this group are, and the organizations are increasingly working together, which is very promising and hopeful to see. But really connecting with like minded folks and tackling an issue, whether it’s local, you know, improving energy efficiency in your town and community, or starting a composting program or working to green your school or your church, all of these efforts are really important because it lets people sort of contribute and learn at their own pace, in a way where it’s concrete. And they can see the change right before their eyes taking place, whereas, you know, other groups are going to work at the national level and try to find a common ground, so that states and regions can work together. It depends on what your own strengths are. But I think building what we call an issue public among the Alarmed, people who are gonna, you know, really show up and turn out and participate and coordinate with others, that’s really what we need most at this stage. Because the time is now, and there’s a real sense of urgency to get action as quickly as we can. So, especially with the election looming and thinking about, you know, if the Democrats win in November, we’re going to have a fairly short window, um, to make some really big changes and get some momentum going.

Gill
And I was reading recently that climate changes now has the second biggest issue public after abortion. So even though Covid’s happened and, and lots of other things are on people’s minds, climate change has a, a bloc of concern among, among Americans, which I think is really powerful. And all of what you’re saying makes it sound like it’s still critically important to get people out there.

Marlon
It is and you’re right about the voting priority. We asked people what are the most important issues? And we give them 30 different issues to choose from. And for the first time in history, at least among liberal Democrats, global warming is number two out of 30 issues. It’s second only to healthcare. And number three is environmental protection. So the environment is now in the top two very important issues for deciding who they will vote for in the 2020 presidential election. And this has never happened. I mean global warming has been at the bottom of these ranking lists for the longest time. If you look to the moderate and conservative Democrats, it’s number eight out of 30. But if you move to like the Republican category, it’s down near the bottom. It’s number 23 for liberal and moderate Republicans. And it’s dead last for conservative Republicans. It just gives you a sense of how strong the headwinds are in some of, you know, the reddest counties and states out there.

Gill
This was really a wonderful opportunity to, to just be updated on the state of belief. It’s some of the most powerful information that we have, um, as we go out there and we have these kinds of conversations. Jenn, as always, thank you so much for bringing us these perspectives. I always love talking to you. I end our conversations feeling really encouraged. So thank you for sharing all that you do with us

Laungani
Yeah, thank you so much.

Marlon
And thank you for having me. I love talking about this data and the maps and our research, so thank you.

[music]

Justin Schell
This is Justin Schell, the producer for Warm Regards. As we explore the often unexpected stories behind climate data this season, we’re also sharing data stories from you, our listeners. Here are two stories sent to us by scientists who study climate change across space and time.

Rachel Tilling
Hey everyone, I’m Rachel Tilling and I’m a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. My research uses satellite data to study Arctic sea ice, which is the frozen sea water that floats on the ocean surface, to understand how it’s changing as the Arctic warms, Satellites have shown us that the extent of some sea ice cover in the Arctic has decreased by around 40% since observations began in the late 1970s. More recently, the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 and NASA’s ICESat-2 satellites have allowed us to measure the thickness of the sea ice cover as well as its extent, so we can get a clearer picture of how much the ice is left in the Arctic.

Kaustubh Thirumalai
Hi, my name is Dr. Kaustubh Thirumalai and I’m an Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. I research how climate change occurs over timescales of decades to thousands of years by investigating the paleoclimate record preserved in ancient rocks and fossils over the geological history of the planet. More specifically, I extract chemical and ecological signatures preserved in sedimentary archives to ask about the climatic environment in which they were deposited. Together with the insights of several other researchers, the fields of paleoclimatology and paleoceanography reveal that climate proxies can successfully and quantitatively record climatic signals that the earth has seen large and pronounced climatic changes across its history; that atmospheric carbon dioxide and global climate are intricately coupled across various timescales; that extensive ecological and civilizational networks have relied on climatic stability; and finally, that the rate of increase in carbon dioxide we see over the past century is unprecedented in the geological record.

Schell
Inspired by what you’ve heard? We’d love to share your data story on Warm Regards. You can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286 or record yourself and email it to us at ourwarmregards@gmail.com. Make sure to say who you are and where you’re from.

[music]

Laungani
When I show my students the evidence for human caused climate change, they often come up to me after class to talk about how their own beliefs on the topic shifted from skepticism to acceptance of the scientific consensus. While I am heartened that they understand the science, some of them also ask me how they should talk about climate change with their friends and family members who do not accept human driven climate change. I see that they are not only asking about how to communicate the science to their family and friends, but they are asking “How do I help them understand and talk with them about climate change without losing that relationship?” I can see that they’re scared. They’re worried that if they push back against their friends and family they will ruin those relationships. That’s not a small risk for them. If some of my students are feeling this way, I know that there are others that feel the same but didn’t say anything. It’s an old idea in the classroom, that if one student asks a question, 5 other students probably have the same question, but didn’t work up the courage to ask. This is one of the reasons why Jacquelyn and I wanted to talk with our second guest today, Bob Inglis, the former representative from South Carolina. Bob is someone who changed his beliefs on climate change in a very public way with very public consequences and we wanted to understand the story of his change in belief.

Bob thanks so much for being here. So you’re probably familiar with the Six Americas report that comes out of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. These categories range from the Dismissive all the way to the Alarmed. Where do you think, you know, along that continuum, where do you think you started and where are you now?

Bob Inglis
Oh yeah, great question. You know, I do believe that the global warming Six Americas is one of the best frames for discussing where people are on climate change. Of course you gotta discount that a little bit because Ed Maibach at the Center for Climate Change Communication, that’s, we’re in Ed’s center so that’s why I’m such a big fan of Ed and his work and, and Tony Leiserowitz’s work at Yale. So, you know. I was in a category for my first six years in Congress, as, as in conscious disregard, that may be a subcategory for their Six Americas, but wasn’t really dismissive as in I wasn’t out to disprove it, but I was in the spot of conscious disregard of the facts. Which in the law is, either gross negligence or intentional misconduct. I’m not sure which.

Laungani
Yeah, and so where do you find yourself now on that continuum?

Inglis
Quite aware, I don’t want to say alarmed because you know it’s better to be aware than alarmed seems to me because alarmed people sometimes don’t make good decisions, I think it’s better to be aware.

Laungani
Do you feel that, I mean recently, have you made any moves along that continuum? Are you, you know, do you find yourself shifting maybe closer to the alarmed point?

Inglis
Well, when I say aware of what I’m, I’m quite aware of, you know, for example, the Arctic sea ice breaking apart, those that’s really quite a, well, I’m going to use the word alarming, um, and, thankfully it’s sea ice, not land ice, because if it were land ice breaking into the ocean, then we’d have, you know, a sea level rise issue, but it is a harbinger of things. The fires, the hurricanes, the intensity and their ability to spun up very quickly, not the existence of hurricanes, of course, there have always been hurricanes, it’s just, we have now more energy for those hurricanes. So all of those things cause me to be very, very anxious to get action, you know, to move this along. We’re now seeing the whites of its eyes and we need to take a shot.

Laungani
Yeah.

Gill
So I’d love to hear a little bit more about your process or the journey that sort of moved you, towards your own awareness, owning what you knew or what you observed. Now that you consider yourself aware, what was it that made you change your mind? Was it a gradual process, or was there some particular fact or bit of climate data or report that had a large impact on your belief in human driven climate change?

Inglis
Three steps really. The first was my son coming to me when I was running for Congress again. You know, I’d been in Congress for six years, saying that climate change was nonsense again, that was that conscious disregard of the facts. My son came to me, he just turned 18, he’s voting for the first time that year. And so he said to me, “Dad I’ll vote for you, but you’re going to clean up your act on the environment.”

Gill
Wow.

Inglis
My son was going to vote for me no matter what. Iit wasn’t in his economic interest to vote against me. What he was really saying, I think was “Dad, I love you, and you can be better than you were before. So how about make this Inglis 2.0, the new and improved version?” That was step one. Step two is going to Antarctica with the Science Committee and seeing the evidence in the ice core drillings, and then step three was another Science Committee trip and something of a spiritual awakening, which seems improbable on a godless Science Committee trip. Cause we all know that all scientists are godless. well apparent, apparently not because, um, because, this Aussie climate scientist was showing us the glories of the great barrier reef and the challenge of coral bleaching. And, I was snorkeling with him and I could just see that he was worshiping God in what he was showing me. You know, St. Francis of Assisi said, “preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.” And so Scott, Scott Heron, who’s now become a very dear friend, was preaching the Gospel. I could see it in his eyes, I could hear it in his voice as he was describing the corals to me, that he was really worshiping not the creation, but the Creator of those corals. And so I knew we shared a worldview. Later we had a chance to talk, and he told me about conservation changes he was making in his life to love God and love people. Rides his bike to work, does without air conditioning as much as possible, and Townsville, Australia, pretty hot place, and hangs the families clothes out on the line. I got right inspired. I wanted to be like Scott, loving God and loving people. So I came home and introduced the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act” of 2009. Probably not such a good political move, in as much as it was the Great Recession, I was representing one of the reddest districts in the state of the nation. And, in a Republican runoff, I got 21% of the vote after 12 years in Congress and the other guy got the other 71%. So a rather spectacular faceplant. So ever since I’ve been out to convince fellow conservatives that it’s actually quite conservative to act on climate change.

Gill
It sounds like you have a really powerful personal journey that combines, you know, interactions with family too close encounters in nature. So I work with ice core data, but, um, I don’t generate it myself, but, um, I’d love to hear a little bit more about what your experience was on that first trip to Antarctica. What was that like for you both in terms of going out on the ice and seeing Antarctica and also just interacting with scientists in their element?

Inglis
I found it just fascinating, you know, I knew I’d see interesting scenery and great science, but the thing that surprised me was that the people. The people are just fascinating. You know, you have PhDs in the dish room who come out after they’ve washed the dishes and listen to the scientific presentation in the dining room because they agreed to work in the dish room just to get the opportunity to go. It really was an amazing, amazing experience. And I had the, it’s incredible that I had the opportunity twice. You know, the first time, in 2006, and then in 2008, the Science Committee used to go every other year. I’m not sure they’re still doing that. Used to go every other year because we were spending back then $340 million a year on the US Polar program. And so the idea was to go visit with a scientist to make sure they weren’t just partying down there, you know, they’re actually doing some work.

Laungani
Sure.

Inglis
And then the second time, the Science Committee called up said, “listen, we’ve got a cancellation, there’s a seat on the plane. Would you like to go?” And I said, “are you kidding me? Yes, I’d love to go.” You know, even though I’d just been two years before, and that was the opportunity to meet Scott Heron and to have that spiritual awakening really, and to decide to do something about climate. So I’m very thankful for that cancellation, that whoever decided not to go on that second Antarctica trip made it possible for me to go. And, um, you know, as to the science, I will tell you it’s interesting on that first trip, I met just amazing people, but one of them was Donal Manahan, he’s a biologist at University of Southern California and he’s a master teacher. There’s something that happened with him that made me more able to hear his science. And I know it’s gonna sound strange, but we were talking and he told me that he needed to go call his mother. He had an aging and ailing mother at the time and I had an aging and ailing mother at the time. And the fact that he needed to go call her, which is a pretty tough thing to do from Antarctica, you had to find somebody who had a satellite phone. The fact that he needed to go call his mother, made me more able to hear his science. And I know that sounds odd, but we’re humans, we’re not computers. And so we want to know what the other person who’s telling us something is like. And the fact that he loved his mother and wanted to go call her, made me think he’s an okay guy. I think I should listen to science.

Gill
That’s really powerful because reflects a lot of the research that has been done on what makes effective climate communication, that it’s not so much about the data as it is about building empathy connections with the person that you’re talking with. It’s strangely validating to hear you say that this was something that helped you become more receptive to his message because we often start from this position of thinking it’s about data and facts and then we learn very quickly either through our personal experience or because we follow this research, that it really has a lot more to do with personal connection and empathy and storytelling, and the facts actually really take a very distant backseat often to, um, just interpersonal connections. So I appreciate that.

[music]

Laungani
So Bob, I know you were making a joke earlier about like the godless scientists and I know, you know, that we’re not just partying on the ice, but I’m curious to know, do you think, you know, and you talked about all these different types of experiences, you know, in your change on climate change, do you think that others would be equally impacted by, you know, particular pieces of I’m going to call it data, but like, or are there particular types of data that you think would change people’s minds on climate change? You know, maybe, maybe that’s climatological or anecdotal, kind of like what you’ve shared with us.

Inglis
Well, you know, um, here’s where my colleague Ed Maibach would say if people come to know that the overwhelming percentage, 97% or whatever of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and human caused, that that’s dispositive for a large segment of the population. And, Ed has data on that, so I know that he’s correct on that. It’s just, when you look at the cross tabs for conservatives, you find a slightly different thing. And what anecdotally we’ve found in making lots of presentations to conservatives is they really get their backs up about that assertion. They doubt it. And I think what it is, is implicit in that is if 97% of climate scientists agree that it’s real and human caused, and you’re still Dismissive Dan in global warming Six Americas, then you’re the dumb kid in the class. The last one to get it. And so you dig in and try to prove that you’re not dumb. What we find is if you can talk to a conservative about the concept of accountability and simply putting all cost in on all the fuels and eliminating all the subsidies, and then talk to them about Milton Friedman and how on the Phil Donahue show in the 1980s, Donahue asked him, “what do you do about pollution, Dr. Friedman, if you don’t want it regulate it?”, and Friedman says “you tax it, you tax pollution.” And then he goes on to explain internalizing negative externalities, you know, making the product bear all of its costs to a transparent marketplace. That’s rock solid conservatism. Now here’s the problem, my party, the grumpy old party, that it needs to be the grand opportunity party, is right now dominated by a populist nationalist, not by actual conservatives. And so there is a remnant within there of actual conservatives. They know to bow at the mention of Milton Friedman’s name, you know, patron saint of modern conservatism, but, the populist nationalist doesn’t know or care who he was, and so that’s our challenge.

Gill
This gets a little bit at some of the tensions between you and other members of your party. Could you talk to us a little bit about what it felt like for you personally to make a scientific statement about the state of the Earth’s climate and the fact that humans are responsible for the current observed changes in our climate? What was it like for you to, to, to say what you felt was true, but which was in opposition to your broader party, what did that feel like for you personally? How did people respond to you?

Inglis
Well the tough thing about losing in a primary, you know, within your own party is there’s no home to go home to. Politicians are afraid of the people they represent, but they’re terrified of the activists in their own party, because those activists are the ones that turn you out in primaries. And once you get turned out in a primary, really there’s no home to go home to. You know, if you lose in a general election against the other side, the evildoers on the other side, well, then your party will welcome you at the next, Lincoln Day dinner or something, you know, and cheer you for being their gladiator that went out and fought the other side, but lost. But you lose an, a primary, they don’t ask you to come speak at the dinner. You know, you are a person without a country, so, it’s pretty painful. And by the way, I committed other heresies against Republican orthodoxy, but my most enduring heresy was just saying that climate change was real and that, um, we should do something about it. Because it appeared that I had crossed to the other side that I was now marching with Al Gore and not with fellow Republicans.

Gill
One of the reasons we were really interested in talking with you is because many of us, myself included have conservative family members, or people in our immediate community who are maybe on the fence or even hostile to the idea of human caused climate change. So do you have any advice for, say, someone like me or some of our other listeners who are thinking about those upcoming family dinners or those phone calls where we have to have those tough conversations.

Inglis
Well, first of all, great affirmation for the idea that you are called to talk to those people. That’s true. Because, um, that’s, what’s lacking so far is people actually having those conversations. It’s very important that people, um, reach out to those family members or friends. And now I’ll give some advice that I don’t take very often, myself, but, I think it starts by listening to them. If you get to the end of the listening, usually there’s an opening where you’re really getting to what it is that is their problem with acting on climate. I think typically it’s not all that they said in that first five or seven minutes, the five to seven minutes is all smoke screen. The thing that bothers them is the thing that they mention after we listened patiently. What I find, especially with conservatives that we speak to, is that it’s solution aversion. At the end of the day, they don’t think after that five or seven minute opening frame where they’re talking about the hockey stick or whatever and manipulating data or something, then finally what they get to is that they just don’t think they got a solution that fits with their values. And therefore they doubt the existence of the problem. So what conservatives heard about climate is the UN, blue helmets on, is going to come get with the ever popular EPA here in America, and they are going to regulate our very breath. Well, there’s nothing in that paragraph that’s attractive to a conservative. So they don’t think there’s a solution that fits with their values. So what we like to do is show them, well, we’ve got a solution, here’s Milton Friedman. He’ll tell you what to do on this. Here’s a clip of him on the Phil Donahue show that I was mentioning earlier. And if they’re an actual conservative, then it opens their eyes to the reality that accountability is the answer, simple accountability. And, um, that’s a, that’s a watch word among conservatives. So, um, that, that’s, that’s what we find works, but listen first.

Gill
Can I ask, what does accountability mean to you?

Inglis
Well it means basically that we should bear all of our costs and pay for what we take. That’s the way it is, for example, when trash haulers take trash to the city dump, you know, we say here, you got to pay for the space you’re taking up in this dump, because the city is going to have to build a new dump once you fill this one up, and so pay for what you take. And we conservatives say, yeah, it makes definitely good sense. And progressives agree. That makes sense. Well, the same thing applies in the atmosphere, is you gotta pay a tipping fee for the space you’re taking up up there. And that’s a very conservative principle that also is acceptable to progressives.

Laungani
So Bob sort of getting back to the idea of personal accountability, you know, your personal story, you know, learning all the science, learning about all of the data, how much sense of accountability did you feel personally when you learned about all of this data?

Inglis
Well, I think that love was a motivating force for me, you know, as the love of my son, his four sisters, um, my wife that started the thing going. It was, you know, concluding with the love of my friend Scott Heron and his love of God and love of people, um, and being inspired by that. You know, Jeff Bridges has a, a neat, the actor, you know, the Dude, has a film that I had a small part in. It’s a documentary Susan Kucera did with him. And there’s this very pregnant pause that Jeff uses in the film. He says, “we care about our grandchildren, right?” And then there’s this long pause before he continues with that amazing voice, you know? And I asked them on a webinar we did with him. “Tell me about that pregnant pause.” I think it’s pretty clear what they were doing, they just wanted people to sit and think about that for a minute. “You do love your grandchildren, right.” Or what could be your grandchildren if you don’t have them yet, I’ve got one grandchild now and I work with a bunch of young people, and one of them told me one day, “Bob, nobody cares about grandchildren.” We’re too young to care about grandchildren, and it’s only people like you that would care about grandchildren, but, I don’t know some that care about posterity or something, making some kind of a mark, it doesn’t have to be specifically grandchildren.

Gill
Well, I think that’s a really powerful place to end, I really appreciate hearing from you and hearing your perspectives and also just the nice ways in which some of what you said dovetail with some of what we are told in an abstract way, it’s just, it’s, I think it’s very powerful and will resonate with a lot of people.

Laungani
Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Inglis
Well, it’s great to be with you. Thanks for being interested and yes do encourage your listeners to have those conversations. That’s what we’ve got to do is talk to friends and family members about climate action.

[music]

Laungani
Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Joe Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.

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