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Carbon Nation

Want to connect with climate skeptics? Just listen

"Leave your razor blades at home." It's time to rethink the way we engage on climate change.

Americans respect those who stand up for what they believe, who go to the mat even if they don’t agree with you — and this holds especially true for the politically conservative.

When the Senate version of the House’s Waxman-Markey climate bill failed to even get a vote in 2010, and then withered on the vine, a counterproductive decision was made by the folks who really wanted that measure to pass: Never bring up climate change when talking with a skeptic or conservative. Ignore the debate.

I think that was and is a huge mistake.

Carbon Nation poster
Our feature documentary, “Carbon Nation,” has the tagline “a climate change solutions movie (that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change).” We worked three years to make the documentary, and we worked three years on the tagline.

We thought long and hard on whether to include climate change in the tagline. Maybe we’ll turn away the conservatives and skeptics we’re trying to reach. At the same time, our hunt for solutions to climate change was exactly why we made the movie.

But what about those folks like my Uncle Phil, who sent me climate change denier articles the whole time I was filming “Carbon Nation”? We chose not to pander.

The film has worked incredibly well with Uncle Phil and those in his camp — and we make it crystal clear, from the very beginning, that we know climate change is real, human-caused and happening right now. The film connects because we don’t blame, we don’t shame, we stick to solutions. One of our other choices for a tagline was, “Leave your razor blades at home.”

In the film we even have Bernie Karl, who’s working on low-temp geothermal power at his wife’s resort in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska, outside Fairbanks.

He hates waste (“smoke stack free by 2023” is one of his many rallying cries), he’s an industrial-scale recycler (his entire hydroponics greenhouse is constructed with recycled tables and tubes) and yet, he doesn’t think humans are the driver for climate change.

We filmed Bernie in 2007, when I was sure the debate over climate change was over. The night before filming, my wife Chrisna (producer on the film) and I met Bernie in his office. He had a framed photo of him with George W. Bush.

That got me thinking. The next day, during filming, I asked him if he thought humans were causing global warming. When he said he didn’t, I was pissed. I thought everyone should know global warming was real.

Then it hit me: Here he was doing much more to solve climate change than I ever would, and yet he didn’t buy the climate science. How many others such as Bernie were out there?


There’s been a big, refrigerator-sized L.A. doorman in front of the climate tent, and if you didn’t buy the science, you weren’t allowed in.

I realized that we were keeping a great number of good people out of the conversation because of one very well-played and well-placed climate debate — an artificial debate created by industries over the past handful of decades who didn’t want to help start the path towards a low-carbon economy (see Naomi Oreske's book “Merchants of Doubt”).

In 2011, I met Solitaire Townsend, head of Futerra in London. Solitaire was half-English and half-American, thanks to family in Kansas, which means she made a stellar cup of tea and she would tell you the truth, straight up.

She worried that the climate debate was turning into an abortion or gun control deal in the U.S. — untouchable and extremely divisive. I didn’t see it yet, but she was right. It had.

So why the hell bring up climate when talking with someone you know thinks it's bunk?

Starting the conversation

For me, I realized that one, pandering does not create trust, and two, I needed to clear the air before even starting a productive conversation.

Here’s how it goes: I’ve had this conversation scores of times, after screenings where someone dragged along her skeptical husband or brother or co-worker (it’s been mostly men, by the way):

Me: "Thanks for being dragged to the screening. For me, climate change is real, it’s happening, the science is strong and solving it will make life on earth better for just about everyone. What do you think?"

And that’s the magic moment.

Someone like me has never asked someone like him “What do you think?” Someone like me has told him, “You’re an idiot if you don’t believe the science.”

I don’t like to be called an idiot, especially by someone I don’t know. I’m quite sure they don’t either, which is likely a big part of the reason they'd be open to keeping the conversation going.

Them: "Thanks for asking. Climate change is a hoax, Al Gore’s a fraud and scientists are studying it because that’s where the grant money is."

Me: "Okay then. I’m not going to change your mind about climate change, am I?"

Them: "No."

My response: So let’s table that.

And now we’re smiling, agreeing to disagree. We’re like the U.S. senators of old, who would have lunch together, then vote against each others’ bills.

Me: "And you’re not going to change my mind either, right?"

Them: "Nope."

This conversation takes about one minute, and it creates trust, humor and an open mind. Then we get into the real conversation.

solar wind renewable energy
What do they about solar energy? I usually get some variation of, "I love it. I’ve got panels on my house," or, "I’d love to have panels on my house." It makes sense; nine out of 10 of Americans want solar power as a main source of their electricity.

What about wind? That's also a pretty sure-fire bet; seven out of 10 want wind as a main source. And Google did a study a few years back that showed many would pay extra for the clean energy option.

When it comes to energy efficiency, that's a no-brainer.

Geothermal? Here’s where it gets a bit muddled. Folks like the idea of geothermal, but what kind? The bubbling steam? Or the pipe deep below your house? And I’ve got no data on Americans and their passion for geothermal. But most seem to like it.

So, in about two minutes, we’ve found we agree on a lot of energy issues.

That's not to say there aren't much more troublesome areas as well. Fracking and nuclear power top the list. But we’re on the right path, and finding common ground is essential to dealing with the tougher issues.

I propose that if people take the time to respectfully listen, we will find much more common ground in the U.S. than any TV networks would report — by far. Getting even six out of 10 to agree even on any issue is a slam-dunk in the U.S.

In the 1984 presidential election, Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale 58 percent to 42 percent. It was a landslide when only a little more than half of the eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot. So Reagan’s landslide was constructed with a little less than three out of 10 eligible voters.

Three out of 10. Seven out of 10 Americans want wind and nine out of 10 want solar. Only about five out of 10 want nuclear and three out of 10 want coal, based on a Gallup poll conducted in March.

Yes, climate is divisive, but pandering gets you nowhere fast. See what happens when we agree to disagree on climate and get to the common ground that is already there. No opinions need be changed — just heard.

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