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Finding Common Ground In Environmental Debates


Discussions about the environment can often get loud as politics and personal experience transform conversation into debate. Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, calls that Groundhog Day. Rather than rehash familiar arguments, he says, we need to reframe environmental issues and if there are areas of agreement between climate scientists and climate skeptics. In a piece at the institute's magazine, Momentum, Foley wrote maybe if we can all find the humility to care more about finding real solutions than winning the debate, we can get somewhere. Really?

Is there a pragmatic middle, someplace where opponents could agree? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. John Foley is director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. He joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. And nice to have you with us today.

JONATHAN FOLEY: Great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And I suspect you've been in the middle of several of those Groundhog Day arguments.


FOLEY: Yeah. You know, that movie where you just wake up again and again and again. It's the same conversation every time. And, yeah, you feel kind of trapped in these conversations that haven't changed in decades, it seems. We've seem locked into a pattern, and we've got to find a way to break out of this somehow.

CONAN: Yet, climate scientists say the evidence is more and more convincing.

FOLEY: Well, absolutely. It's not that, you know, people misunderstand this to say we're not compromising the science. The climate science, I would argue is very, very clear that, you know, we're warming the climate. We are responsible for that. It's not conceding that ground but rather asking maybe a different question, rather than hitting people over the head and saying, look, you're causing climate change. We need to change this. It's instead asking a different set of questions, like how do we make American - the American economy more competitive, how do we keep jobs in this country, how do we be more secure, that kind of thing, approaching these questions from a different angle.

In Minnesota, where I live, for example, we spend about $20 billion, with a B, on energy every year. Yeah. We don't have any oil or natural gas or coal or uranium up here, so we have to think about this as a kind of local economic issue, perhaps, saying to people, well, don't worry about climate change so much, but how do we keep $20 billion from leaving the state of Minnesota? Wouldn't you rather keep it here? And when you - I think when you approach people with those different kinds of angles to a similar kind of question, you suddenly can break the conversation open and, you know, really explore common ground, whereas just rehashing the same old climate debate again and again and again, just gets us locked in to somewhere we're just never seem to go anywhere.

CONAN: Well, have you had conversations with climate skeptics that moved into positive territory?

FOLEY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. As something that - it just - this is something that seems to happen a lot where, yeah, you might go to a room of people who are somewhat skeptical about climate change or other environmental issues, not just climate. And when you walk in, instead of saying you're the bad guy and I'm here to tell you what's wrong with you, if instead you say, well, how can I help your business be more profitable, how can we help America be more competitive, how can we make our country more secure, you go in as a friend, not as an, you know, opponent. And suddenly, the conversation changes, or you can have a whole new tenor to it.

But even - there's a funny story a few years ago. I lived in Wisconsin for a long time, and I had a neighbor who's just a regular blue-collar guy, drove a pickup truck, you know, just a good guy, and he watched me come out of my house one day, and he said to me, hey, John, you work at the university, don't you? And I said sure, sure, and he said, well, you work in environmental issues, right? I'm like, yeah, I do. And he said, well, do you work on climate change? And I said, yeah, I do, actually. It's part of what I work on. And he looked around, and he leaned in. He wanted to make sure we weren't being overheard, and he said to me, well, can you let me in on the secret? I want to hear about this big conspiracy.


FOLEY: And I said what are you talking about? He said, no, no, on Rush Limbaugh this morning, I heard how the scientists and the U.N. and, you know, Greenpeace or whoever it was, are trying to take over the world's governments and shut down businesses and all this kind of stuff. And I just rolled my eyes a little bit and said, Brian(ph), look, I could argue with you about this, but do you honestly think we could pull it off? Do you really think there's a grand conspiracy of college professors and environmentalists?


FOLEY: And could we actually pull that one off? Really? And he stepped back and said, gosh, I never thought of it that way before. You're right. You wouldn't be competent enough to do it.


FOLEY: And so, sometimes, if you change the conversation around and then you suddenly reach out to people, you can find middle ground.

CONAN: Yet, you often find a highly contentious arguments over things like the XL pipeline, for example, the proposal to bring the bitumen down from Alberta in Canada through a pipeline down through refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. And there are those people on the conservative side who say, this is American jobs. This is energy independence. This is economic development. And there are those on the environmental side who say, this is the beginning of the end. If we burn that carbon, you're going to hit the breaking point.

FOLEY: Yeah, that's a very interesting point, Neal, because I would argue that that is kind of a red herring on both sides. You know, lot of the environmentalists who are quoting scientists and others, saying it will be game over for climate change. And when I look at the number, it says, I don't see that. Burning this tar sands oil, yes, it is worse for climate, but about 15 percent worse than traditional petroleum when you burn it in a car. It's not good, but it's not dramatically worse. What's a lot worse are things like burning coal for electricity or just the fuel efficiency of the American automobile fleet, which we've made a lot of progress in recently.

So I'm not saying we should go after XL, but I think, you know - and go build that thing - but I think that became a kind of a Waterloo, a symbolic kind of political issue rather than a substantial scientific one. The environmental community and the business community kind of decided to go to war over that issue. And I think they are both were wrong, frankly, that there, you know, it wasn't the Waterloo moment for the environment. It isn't the single thing that will make or break climate change. It's one of many things.

And in terms of the other side, about the number of jobs it'll create and how much economic opportunity this would afford for America, well, there are some real questions there. So I think, again, there's a tendency to pick these symbolic issues and make a dramatic political statement over them when, often, the science and the real numbers don't support it. And we've just created a lot of friction when it wouldn't actually really solve the big problem.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. His piece, "Becoming a Climate Pragmatist," appeared in the spring 2011 issue of the University of Minnesota's Momentum magazine. 800-989-8255, email us: talk@npr.org. Jim's on the line with from Tallahassee.

JIM O'BRIEN: This is Jim O'Brien(ph). You know, I really like this conversation. That's why I was persistent in trying to call in. I tend to be in the middle, between climate activists, I call them, and the climate skeptics and what (technical difficulty).

CONAN: You have to turn your radio down, John, Jim.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, yeah, I know. I (technical difficulty) put this down.


O'BRIEN: Yeah. Thanks. It was too - I was trying - anyway, basically - sorry about that. Basically, what I would like to see, I think, will lead to more understanding -because I do believe in climate change and practice when I can and preach when I can - is that we need to get the press involve in an intelligent way and get kind of a quality list of scientists they can talk to when things happened so they can, you know, explain it properly to the general population. And then, I think, it'll get to the congressmen and the leaders, and we can go forward with this - the energy things that you guest is doing.

CONAN: So don't blame the other side of the argument, blame the media.


O'BRIEN: You know, that was - well, the media has a problem. I mean, like, we had this - you guys all have the heat wave. We always have the heat down here in Tallahassee. You have the big heat wave this year. And before it was over, you know, you could find lots of press articles saying it was due to climate change. It didn't give the scientists an opportunity to really, you know, look and see. Is it really climate change, partly climate change or not climate change? And sometimes, you jump too quick. My famous example is that when I here in Florida we had on hurricanes in 2003 and '04, the prime minister of England, Tony Blair, declared this is all due to global warming. Well, you know, eventually, it was proven that it wasn't. But this is what, you know, this sensationalism is - and I can give hundreds of examples - is what I'm concerned about in trying to educate people.

I would say, in normal - other folks outside of the university that are not scientists that are willing to talk to all the time, they're very interested in my opinion because I strike a middle road and try to, you know, have them understand the seriousness of the problem, at the same time, not to use the scare tactics that can happen with the climate aficionado people.

CONAN: All right. Jim, thanks very much for the call...

O'BRIEN: Thanks. Bye.

CONAN: ...and the constructive criticism. And so, as we go ahead on this, Jon Foley, as you look for - again, fracking, I guess, is the next symbolic argument. There are a lot of people saying this is the road to America's energy independence. And again, there are environmentalists who say this is very dangerous.

FOLEY: Well, that's a - that actually could be a pretty serious issue, but, again, that's one where we're going to have to - like Jim said, too, we may have to wait a little while to sort out some of the science on this. You know, it's pretty clear that fracking - or natural gas, anyway - is beneficial to American energy independence and to reducing the effects of climate change from coal. But, yeah, we're beginning to see that some of the fracking in certain locations could be, you know, pretty detrimental to water supplies, water quality and so on, as well the fact if the natural gas is leaking out of the ground, it's also methane going into the atmosphere, which is another potent greenhouse gas. So whether the - there are real climate benefits to fracking will depend a lot in how leaky the systems are.

So like a lot of issues, this has become very polarized. Very pro-fracking folks have taken a kind of one-sided view of this, saying it's good for America, it's good for jobs, it's good for the environment. And there's a very strong anti-fracking community that has sort of taking a very single-minded view on it as well, saying it's all bad for water, bad for the environment. And I suspect when the science gets sorted out, like usual, it's going to be kind of in the gray area in between. And the answer nobody likes is going to be, it depends. There might be places where fracking techniques are very beneficial and work well. And there'll be some places where you really shouldn't do it. And we're going to have to figure that out in a hurry.

And like Jim before, you know, again, sometimes we have to wait for the science to iterate back and forth between these other political extremes of one position or the other. And nine times out of 10, we find out, you know, often, there's truth in both sides of the issue, and there's a middle ground to be found.

CONAN: Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this email from Mark in Burnsville, Minnesota: Is there a middle ground? Either you believe in evidence-based science or you don't. Some people seem unwilling or unable to accept facts that confront their belief systems and would rather live in a world that matches their internal security beliefs than deal with reality.

And I don't think, Jon Foley, you disagree with him on the science, but you disagree with him on the approach.

FOLEY: Well, I absolutely agree with him on evidence-based reality. I absolutely cannot - we - and never should have concede that. I'm a scientist, and I absolutely support the, you know, evidence-based view. That is one place where I will not back down on an issue at all. But I think it's really more of what we do about it and how we frame these conversations. So, you know, I will always stand by the idea that, yes, climate is changing. We are the cause of this. That is what the science is saying. That is absolutely true. We're not backing down from that at all.

But rather, really, how do we frame the conversation? You know, do we make everybody else a villain in the conversation? Do we only talk about in terms of punitive measures, in terms of carbon taxes or cap and trade? Or are there other approached to be taken? Can we talk about, well, you know, let's talk first about American jobs or about creating a green economy or about national security or human health. And when you just say the exact same things but from a different angle, suddenly, you can have a conversation. But for just hitting replay on the old cassette tapes we've had of the '80s of the same old arguments about climate change and the same old arguments for cap and trade or a carbon tax, we're just not going to get anywhere. And we have about 30 years of evidence to prove that.

So I think we just need to not back away from the science. We're not going conceding evidence at all, but rather to package it a bit differently, to frame it a bit differently and to point out the other benefits of taking action on climate change. It's good for the economy. It's good for national security. It's good for human health. In fact, there is no downside to doing this if we're smart about it.

So I'm not conceding science here, but rather, let's think about how we present that science and the actions and policies we need to take as a result. Maybe, we can open that conversation up a little bit more.

CONAN: Have you had much success in Minnesota figuring out ways to keep that $20 billion there? Maybe solar panels, I'm not sure that works well that far north.

FOLEY: Oh, well, you'll be surprised, Neal. Actually, Minnesota has more solar potential than anywhere in the eastern part of the U.S., except for Florida. We have nice, clear winters and good, sunny summers. Germany, farther north than we are, has much more solar than about anywhere in the United States. So actually, we're pretty well-positioned for solar. You'll be surprised how much of the U.S. could do well in solar. We also have a lot of wind potential here in Minnesota, especially in the western area. But it's more about, how do we get that electricity to the cities like Minneapolis or Chicago?

And, of course, we have bioenergy here, too, and the debates about things like corn ethanol. That's another big contentious issue here in the Midwest. And one where, again, middle grounds might have to be found between groups that are in very different poles on that issue.

CONAN: And what do you think is the most promising - again, the symbolic areas, those are always going to be difficult. But are there other conversations that could be had that, as you say, skirt the ideology?

FOLEY: Well, it's very interesting. Regardless of, you know, how you think of him politically, the Obama administration has actually done more, may be by accident - or may be on purpose - to think about, to take on climate change than all previous administrations, really, combined. Our CO2 emissions in the United States have gone down pretty dramatically in the last few years, partly because of the recession, of course, but partly because people are retooling and getting more efficient.

The American car fleet is getting lot more efficient. We finally got those CAFE standards going up again, which is fantastic, after about 30 years of going nowhere. And maybe that's a benefit of bailing out Detroit. We could work with them to make cars more efficient, the cars Americans want to buy. We've also - the fracking, moving away from coals, where it's natural gas, has helped a lot, although we have to watch the other aspects of fracking. And also, renewables are beginning to make a bigger and bigger dent in the American electricity supply and other energy supplies.

So you took that all together, our emissions of CO2 are getting close to what they would have been in 1990, which is what the commitment for the Kyoto Protocols would have had us do if we'd signed it. So ironically, we're actually getting close to what the Kyoto obligations would have been, but we didn't do it by purpose. We did it by lots of little actions that didn't fight those big symbolic fights over cap and trade or carbon taxes or whatever.

CONAN: And would have turn...

FOLEY: So there has been progress.

CONAN: And would have turned into a big fight if somebody passed or proposed the law and say, let's meet the Kyoto Protocol guidelines.

FOLEY: Exactly. So we've been doing this through the - this administration has done tremendous amount of work in, like, energy R&D, on improving the CAFE standards of the American fleet. That was hugely important. And we're seeing efforts working internationally in other greenhouse gases that I think are important. And if we can't win the carbon battle on cap and trade, we have to take a whole bunch of other approaches too.

CONAN: Jon Foley, thanks very much for your time today.

FOLEY: Thanks for having me today, Neal.

CONAN: He joined us from the studios at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.