Climate change has brought out the worst in us. You either accept the science or you are a bigot, a climate change denier, or a conspiracy theorist. Many activists will shout to the stars that you just have to look at the data! There’s allegedly SO MUCH OF IT! We often hate on people who are not convinced — and do so to an astonishing degree.
Here’s the deal: I accept the science. I believe that climate change is occurring at an unprecedented rate and humans are the major driver of such change. But to be honest, I have never really looked at the data myself. I completely give myself over to the expert consensus in this case. And, I suspect that a lot of others who accept climate change do the same.
So when we mention all this data about climate change, are we doing it disingenuously? After all, it was not the data that changed our minds — it was the fact that a lot of smart people looked through the data and told us about it. Some people are genuinely confused — mean even — about climate change “not being that bad.” In these situations, let's educate, not write them off as anti-science zealots.
A common point of contention for many people is that climate change — in many places — does not appear to be happening. The day to day weather is not changing that much. Therein lies the understandable confusion: weather and climate are different.
I think we need to first understand the difference. Then we can talk about how to use the philosophical concept of “character” to draw meaningful parallels. Let's talk.
Global Warming? But, It's Snowing!
You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even said it!
“If the climate is warming, why is there so much snow!”
Well, there is so much snow because that is a singular weather event, not a representation of how the climate is doing. That is still probably pretty fuzzy, so let's break this down.
Weather is what your local meteorologist is paid to tell you about every hour on the news. Weather is that thing you look at on your iPhone so you know how to dress before you head out the door. So, the weather is a daily occurrence.
Alternatively, the climate is an average of all the weather happening in an area or region over long periods of time. It includes things like average rainfall, average temperature, average humidity, how seasons are generally demarcated, etc.
Here is why this can be tricky. Let’s suppose that one day I call my friend who lives in Southern California. Currently, I live in North Carolina. I might say something like… “it's drier in Los Angeles than it is in Winston-Salem, right?” By this, I could simultaneously mean two things. On that day, it could very well be drier in Los Angeles than it is in Winston-Salem. Alternatively, I might also mean that generally speaking, Los Angeles has a drier climate than that of Winston-Salem.
What’s more, on that particular day, it might be unusually dry in Winston-Salem and unusually humid in Los Angeles. And in this case, it would still be true that generally Los Angeles has a Mediterranean climate that is drier than Winston-Salem’s Subtropical climate.
Any day’s weather might match the average climate of the area, but it might also be different — an anomaly even.
So understandably, it can be confusing for non-scientists.
Other Ways to Think About This
Let’s talk about character. I know this seems like nonsense, but bear with me.
In his chapter of The Handbook of Virtue Ethics, philosopher Christian Miller brings our attention to the globalist view of character as explicated by another philosopher, John Doris. The globalist view of a character (and character traits) has two criteria:
- The character trait must be consistent (i.e. they are “…reliably manifested in trait-relevant behaviour across a diversity of trait-relevant eliciting conditions…”).
- The character trait must be stable (i.e. they are “…reliably manifested in trait-relevant behaviour over iterated trials of similar trait-relevant eliciting conditions”).
To sum up, Miller tells us that:
“The global character trait, then, is a character trait which exhibits both cross-situational consistency in a wide variety of trait-relevant circumstances, as well as stability in repeated instances of the same kind of trait-relevant circumstances.” (pg. 418–19)
(Note: If you look into this issue of character, the globalist view is controversial.)
Okay, that’s nice but what does this have to do with weather and climate? In many ways, it has absolutely no connection. Here’s where I do think it’s a helpful comparison: climate is like the overall character of a region, and the traits are things like precipitation, humidity, temperature, etc. and each instance of these traits is like weather events.
To crystallize this, consider Sarah. If I were asked to describe her I would say something about her unending compassion. Sarah is a committed vegan for the sake of lessening animal cruelty. She volunteers at the local food pantry and she delivers the boxes of food. In addition, Sarah is also the president of Eco-League, a local environmental justice group that focuses on equitable solutions to the legacy of environmental racism. Sarah is a compassionate person.
Now, please consider the Sahara Desert, a sandy region in Northern Africa. If I were asked to describe it I would say something about it being quite dry. It has been described as the driest place on earth even. Reports say that it commonly does not receive any rain for periods longer than a year. The Sahara is a very dry place.
Sarah is consistently and stably compassionate across most situations. If she were to show a crueler side once in a blue moon, it might be unusual but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone to declare her no longer compassionate. One rare situation of cruelty among a lifetime of compassion seems minimal.
The Sahara desert is consistently and stably a very dry place. If it were to rain — even a lot — only a couple of days per year, the climate would still be considered dry. No one would say that those two days suddenly turned the climate into a wet or damp one. A single instance of rain would be a weather event.
Now let’s consider the “change” in climate change. If Sarah were to become much more likely to commit cruel acts (i.e. doing so consistently and stably) you would think something was going wrong. If it were to happen rather quickly, your concern might spike even more. And what if you found out that it was another person, perhaps her new friend, who was responsible for her sudden change? You’d want to stop them.
Well this is exactly what is happening with the climate: weather events are changing ever so slightly. On the scale of climate (represented in time and space) this is having a large effect. The anomalous temperatures, preceiptication, etc., are occurring more and more — they are becoming commonplace. And instead of Sarah’s new friend, this time the entire human species is having a real effect on the change in climate through our harmful activity.
And just like we would like for Sarah to be able to preserve her compassion, we need to be just as vigilant when it comes to protecting the climate’s character.
Why this is More Important than Ever
I agree that the evidence for climate change and the associated consensus among scientists is overwhelming, but we cannot lose sight of our commitment to communicating science effectively. The usual reminders that climate change is real is so often lacking a more human component that pulls the issue quite literally out of the atmosphere and into the minds of citizens.
Communicating science is not always about filtering it down to it’s most simplest; sometimes effective communication is shifting the tools and disciplines we are relying on. Regular non-scientists might find even the simple science uncompelling. With this problem science communicators need to switch up their tactics, their analogies, perhaps even their worldview.
In this article, I have offered what I hope is a helpful analogy between the climate/weather difference and the philosophical topic of character. The undertones of this article are more precious I think. I introduce character studies as a primer for the reader to uncover thier own character in talking about climate change with people who aren’t getting it.
Compassion is a trait that I find to be so important and one that the world’s people could really work at. So, the next time you are pressed to have a tough climate conversation with someone who might oppose you, remember Sarah and the Sahara.
More stories on climate communication or character:
What Does Climate Change have to do with an Elephant?
Solving climate change requires an interdisciplinary approach.