April 14, 2013

JIN: Environmental Issues: Let’s Talk Them Out

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On Wednesday, members of KyotoNOW! and the College Republicans debated whether Cornell should divest a portion of its endowment from fossil fuels. Until the debate, I did not know exactly who opposed divestment, other than President Skorton and Chief Investment Officer A.J. Edwards, who the Sun interviewed.

Sure, there’s been an increasing flurry of comments in response to every Sun article on divestment, but the responders are all people — or more precisely, online monikers — on one side talking at (and about) the other side. In Wednesday’s debate, four people talked to each other — a rare sight now that “debates” mostly take place in news stories, blogs and more often, in the insane comment threads following them. The acrid volleys of jibes that prevail online make the very idea of a respectful and structured debate seem like an antiquated oddity. To even think that such a debate can coexist with the intense discussions on Facebook, Twitter and Disqus is almost laughable.

Still, I can’t understand why Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project would want to feed hundreds of thousands of dollars into growing the beast that is online comment wars. Last month, the group launched a beta version of Reality Drop, a platform where climate proselytizers can “DROP REALITY,” “DESTROY DENIAL” and “SPREAD TRUTH” by posting comments generated by the site to articles from various media outlets. The site uses an algorithm to aggregate and label articles as “climate myth” or “climate reality,” and users earn points by commenting and promoting the articles on Facebook and Twitter.

The only reason that I still listen to the noise of many comment storms, especially on The Sun’s website, is I can imagine a person behind that block of text, someone who may be sitting next to me in class or in the library. What rhetorical power is there to a comment if it is generated by a website? Reality Drop aims to change public opinion by spreading climate science, but it only generates hostility by perpetuating the bandying of prescribed attacks.

According to Dietram Scheufele, professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the more hostile comments are, the more people’s understanding of the article’s content declines. He points to climate change as an example of the polarized issues “where we need rational discourse, an unbiased exchange of ideas and the evaluation of facts not colored by us yelling at each other.” What he describes resembles what live debates, among other forums for communication, can provide.

The lack of identity and, under the auspices of Reality Drop, the very lack of personhood that marks environmental communications made me reflect on this year’s Earth Day theme: The Face of Climate Change. The global photo campaign seeks to construct a visual mosaic of people who are already facing the consequences of flooding, droughts, wildfires and fiercer storms — and of people who are working on climate solutions.

In addition to seeing those who are on the frontlines of climate change fighting it as victims or allies, I want to see the faces of those who are skeptical and the many more who are apathetic. These faces should be included in the mosaic, not to be demonized, but to be included in the conversation about climate change. I’ve come to appreciate that an individual brings a whole host of identities to bear on any environmental issue, and even a self-identified environmentalist will sometimes foreground other identities.

Considering what I think and write about, I guess it’d be pretty preposterous for me to say that I am not an environmentalist, but I genuinely believe there’s no such thing as an environmentalist or a non-environmentalist. It seems even more preposterous to say that someone could not care at all about the environment, or that someone is definitively doing more good than harm for the environment. I’ve certainly racked up a lot of carbon emissions traveling to national and international environmental conferences.

It’s easy to troll online comment sections, but where does that get you? Likewise, it’s not hard to find people who fundamentally agree with you to exchange and revel in compatible worldviews, but how far does that get you? It’s more constructive to fundamentally treat the other side as credible and to engage in an actual conversation. By Earth Day 2014, I want to better understand not just climate science but the environmental ideas people hold based on the reality of their lives. That’s climate reality and climate sanity.

Jing Jin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at jingjin@cornellsun.com. Ringing True appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Jing Jin