On September 19th, Woolsey Hall was full of people nodding their heads and straining to take perfect photos for their Snapchat stories. No, Yale wasn’t hosting a Taylor Swift concert; rather, it was a climate change discussion between former Secretary of State John Kerry ‘66 and renowned actor and climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio.
The panel, entitled “Closing Plenary: Citizen Engagement & Activism,” was the finale of a two-day conference hosted by Yale’s new Kerry Initiative, a program dedicated to solving the world’s most challenging problems. Between jokes about Titanic and The Revenant, both men stressed the need for students to “save ourselves, from ourselves” at a time when the government has continually failed to act sufficiently.
For most of the people in the audience, the exchange didn’t reveal anything that they did not already know. They know that the ice is melting. They know that the government must do something but doesn’t because of climate change deniers in Congress and the trainwreck that is the Trump Administration. They know that business leaders should try to make the transition to green energy economically favorable. They know all these things because everyone in the room was on the same exact page when it came to climate change. And as a result, I thought that the event was very ineffective.
For some, that statement may seem unjustifiably harsh or simply untrue. But there were no large gatherings before or after the event with throngs of ardently chanting students and people in burning Earth costumes. There was no prolonged campus discussion about the urgent global disaster that will soon befall everyone (and has already started damaging the planet). After hearing John Kerry and Leonardo DiCaprio’s well-thought and poignant speeches, did anyone write to their congressmen, switch all their light bulbs to LEDs, go vegan, live a zero-waste life, or stop consuming manufactured goods? Probably not. In a survey conducted by Trulia, only 34% of millennials take a green action, besides recycling, every day.
The reason why the panel was so uninspiring was that there was nothing more to say. Everyone agreed that climate change is a problem that will take a great collective effort to solve, so all that was left as stimulating conversation topics were Leonardo DiCaprio and John Kerry’s jokes about DiCaprio. If the goal of the session was to rile up the audience into action, the panel unfortunately failed. And I honestly believe that the event would have achieved its goals had it included someone who denies climate change instead of Leonardo DiCaprio.
This is not to say that I endorse or want to spread ideas that climate change is a hoax or just a natural phenomenon. I understand that the research overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that humans are causing shifts in our environment. And even if the science is uncertain, simple mathematical analysis and risk-reward calculation still urge us to take preventative action. The point of inviting someone whom we disagree with is to make us uncomfortable.
Nothing causes dialogue like dissonance. People are not motivated to action by agreement. Sure, Kerry and DiCaprio gave dire warnings about what sounded like the end of the world: raging wildfires, devastating hurricanes, and an increasing refugee population due to desertification. But these threats no longer scare us. Everyone has heard of these things before and for people not directly impacted by these issues, they seem distant and almost normal. People are only motivated by things that startle them, jolt them awake when they are most complacent.
If a climate change denier was invited to speak, there would be mass protests across campus, similar to those that occurred at UC Berkeley after Ann Coulter was invited to speak. If a climate change denier was invited to speak, we would no longer be fixating on the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio graced the campus with his presence. Instead, the focus would be on climate change as a serious issue that we should all be passionately fighting against.
For some people, the idea of inviting a climate change denier to a climate change initiative is backward and counterproductive. After all, another point made in the panel was that the media over-represents the subset of people who deny climate change science. But it is not about who is right or who is wrong on this issue. If we spend all our time yelling insults and facts at the other side, we will all pay the price in the end. Climate change is one of those issues where most people have already made up their minds and simply won’t change their opinion even if reality contradicts them, an unfortunate consequence of the heavy politicization of the issue. Climate change cannot be solved only by liberals because there are other people who also live on this planet and demand a say in what we do with it. We don’t fight climate change more effectively when we ignore the 51% of people who reject that climate change is caused by human activity.
Inviting people we don’t agree with would allow us to understand their concerns about climate legislation so that we can still come to some resolution without having everyone fully believe in climate change. While both Kerry and DiCaprio talked about being careful to not leave people behind as we make the transition to clean energy, they were noticeably vague on how they were going to achieve this goal. To their credit, the solution is hard to find. But it doesn’t make it easier when climate change deniers are immediately dismissed as uneducated for not believing in science and are described as roadblocks that we must plow through.
In addition to lobbying for a carbon tax or for stricter carbon dioxide emission limits, we should also be lobbying for greater funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission or the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) program, both of which help miners transition to different industries through education and other resources. In addition to listening to the same opinion, we should also be listening to those who disagree with us, even if it makes us uncomfortable. That’s how we learn, become more aware, and progress. Institutions of higher education should not be safe havens that we complacently hide inside. Instead, they should constantly prod us with differing opinions so that we are provoked enough to fight back.