In a letter I wrote that 2,300 UC and CSU faculty members signed, we asked the Trump administration to honor the U.S. commitment to meeting the modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions set out in the Paris Climate Accord. In the weeks since that letter circulated, Scott Pruitt falsely testified that scientists remain uncertain about the causes of climate change. Congress confirmed Pruitt as head of the EPA anyway, and a bill has now been introduced to dismantle the EPA.
These events follow a pattern where the president and members of his administration assert blatant falsehoods, attempt to discredit empirical evidence and set up an “us or them” culture of mistrust and misinformation. The events of the last few months can be broadly interpreted as an attack on the facts and methodology of science. I, like many of you, have been alarmed by this trend and have been searching for ways to make a difference.
This is not my first brush with the anti-science movement. I grew up in a rural town where I was ostracized for believing in evolution. Returning from my first year at college armed with everything I had learned in an evolutionary biology class, I was ready to systematically refute “intelligent design.” Unfortunately, I learned that people, when faced with facts that contradict the values of their friends and family, reject rational arguments in favor of safer beliefs that reinforce their worldview.
We at UC Berkeley who are more accustomed to scientific reasoning might believe ourselves above this. We are not. For evidence, I present the fact that, next to driving, eating meat is the largest contribution we directly make to carbon emissions. Beef and lamb in particular contribute twice as much to your carbon footprint than any other food. After a visit to a factory farm or a slaughterhouse, you will also find it difficult to morally justify the meat industry.
Yet even here in Berkeley, at the epicenter of vegetarianism and veganism, the vast majority of people consume meat. We justify it, not through rational arguments, but by retreating to the safer belief that, if our friends and family do it, it must be OK. When it comes to living rationally, none of us (not even vegetarians) are blameless.
The point is that the problems we are facing, among them the threat of imminent climate change and anti-intellectualism, are problems of social organization, not of scientific understanding. Pointing fingers and de-friending people we disagree with will not lead to different outcomes in 2018 or 2020, nor will delivering condescending lectures about the facts of climate change. Instead, we need to understand and address the social roadblocks that prevent people from changing their minds.
We draw our moral cues from the people and culture around us. Insinuating that climate science is a hoax only works when no one present has firsthand knowledge. More importantly, people are less likely to believe in a corrupt scientific conspiracy when they are friends with a scientist.
As the growing acceptance of our LBGTQ+ friends illustrates, change can happen quickly at a national level when people discover that an opposing viewpoint wears the face of a person they know and respect. Not everyone is convincible, but a lot of people follow the prevailing opinion in their communities. Where public opinion is closely split, a few voices can tip the scales in dramatic fashion. In stark contrast to isolationist ideas like Calexit, we need to organize ourselves, find these tipping-point communities and become visible and contributing members of them.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” With your help, we might still bend quickly enough to avert catastrophic climate change. Many people could have written that climate letter, but I was the one who took the initiative. Similarly, your actions can empower others to carry the conversation to new communities if you look for opportunities to amplify your voice.
Just as you are not the Berkeley caricature of the hyper-liberal tree-hugger, resist the urge to believe caricatures of other people. You can help by keeping yourself informed on both sides of issues, talking gently and listening sensitively about climate action.
And maybe think about eating less meat.