Everybody wants a white Christmas.
In Erie, Pennsylvania they certainly got it. On Christmas Day they received 34 inches of snow and by midweek they had received over 65 inches of the white stuff. In the central and northeastern parts of the U.S., bitter air from Canada reduced temperatures to record lows in the period between Christmas and New Year. On the notoriously bracing Mount Washington, wind chill readings pushed the temperatures toward the negative nineties. A town in Minnesota known as the “Icebox of the Nation” broke its own low temperature record when the mercury sank to -37 degrees. Closer to home, my family had two pipes frozen over Christmas and put more time into shoveling snow off the sidewalk in a few days that we normally do in a month.
With records tumbling across the north-eastern tier and people digging seldom-used skis out of basements across the nation it was no surprise to find the Tweeter-in-Chief in Washington blurting out, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek (who knows?), that “we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming.”
It is fairly easy to dismiss these sort of outbursts against the reality of climate change on scientific grounds. The most obvious place to start is to point out the difference between climate and weather. One is defined by decades long trends, the other by day-by-day and hour-by-hour fluctuations in atmospheric conditions. Another is to respectfully remind the skeptic that climate change is a global, not a northeastern U.S. phenomenon. This point was amply demonstrated by a map tweeted out by the Weather Channel during the latest cold snap showing just how much of the world is experiencing above normal temperatures at the same moment that some sections of the U.S. are pulling out the wool sweaters. A third way is simply to note that, despite a few frozen pipes here and there at the tail end of the year, 2017 will still end up being one of the top three warmest years on record.
Countering climate denial with a barrage of scientific ripostes is important but, for some (non-)listeners, obviously not very effective. Climate deniers have developed a Teflon coating when it comes to their ability to shake off the widely-agreed upon empirical data. So what other strategies can be adopted?
It is possible, perhaps, that the case can also be made using ethical arguments. Believing in climate change, after all, is not simply a matter of accepting a set of empirical facts. It is also a matter of cultivating and displaying soundness of character. So one might inquire about the absence of moral virtue it demonstrates to interpret a short-term year-ending event in the northeastern United States as an indicator of something that ninety-seven percent of those who study this phenomenon have apparently missed.
If you take this track, it would be suitable to start with the virtue of modesty. This virtue is defined in Merriam-Webster as “the quality of not being too proud or confident about yourself or your abilities.”
Climate is complicated. Climate scientists are dedicated professionals who have spent years of their lives learning the intricate thermodynamic relationships that determine global temperatures. Their models are powered by supercomputers that incorporate a range of variables into their predictions, variables that include winds, temperature, precipitation, moisture, pollution, and energy exchanges between ocean, land, and sky. It is not a discipline for hobbyists or amateurs. Their work deserves our respect. To imagine that a quick observation made by looking out your window one December morning or by reading a couple of news headlines counts for more than decades of training and concerted work is, at the very least, immodest.
To modesty, one could add the virtue of consistency. As pointed out in earlier posts, 2017 has been an extraordinary year of extreme weather events that match remarkably closely the predictions of climate scientists about what to expect from global warming. More powerful hurricanes, bigger rainstorms, extended wildfire seasons, and record high temperatures have all played their part in making 2017 the most expensive year for natural disasters in American history. Although it may fit a chosen worldview, it is disturbingly inconsistent for an observer to use one relatively minor weather event as evidence in favor of their chosen position and to ignore more than a dozen others that offer compelling evidence against it.
Then there is the virtue of solidarity. This virtue is defined by Merriam-Webster as “unity…that produces or is based on community of interests, objectives, and standards.” Suffering climate harms is in nobody’s interests. Demonstrating that your interests are aligned with those in the greatest amount of harm’s way from climate change is a display of solidarity. Solidarity means that you are with them, working to ensure that both yours and their interests are protected.
A Yale study shows that seven out of ten Americans believe global warming is happening. Four out of ten believe that they are already experiencing real climate harms from these changes. It would not be surprising if this number is even higher in some of the places that experienced 2017’s most severe weather events (for example, the Gulf Coast of Texas, the Florida panhandle, southern California, and arctic Alaska). Connecting these harms with climate change unequivocally and unwaveringly would be to demonstrate the virtue of solidarity.
Consider also sympathy. This is a word that means, literally, “suffering with.” A close cousin of solidarity, the dictionary defines the virtue of sympathy as “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.”
Sympathy is particularly appropriate when those affected are already worse off than you. Only a small portion of those impacted by climate change are Texans chased out of their home by floodwaters or Californians forced to flee wildfires. Many more live in poorer parts of the world with less private resources or government assistance available to deal with severe natural disaster. A virtuous person would find themselves in sympathy for the suffering of those worst off in the face of climate change and perhaps they might even experience some guilt for their own role in contributing to it.
Persuading people of the importance of climate change will still require a lot of compelling argumentation rooted firmly in the sciences. But alongside a robust scientific account, there is plenty of room for a powerful ethical one. Modesty, consistency, solidarity, and sympathy are all virtues that are indispensable in a humane and caring society. Immodesty, inconsistency, divisiveness, and indifference to the suffering of others are vices that healthy societies are better off without.
Virtues, it must also be noted, are long-term moral goods. They need to be developed and practiced in behaviors that are repeated consistently over time. They are not, unfortunately, easy to display in tweets.