Depolarizing the ‘polar bear’

The climate crisis affects all life on Earth, but solutions are stymied by the partisan nature of the debate.

polar bear eating grass

Climate scientists say that polar bears will most likely become extinct by 2100. You may be one of those who believe polar bears look cute and cuddly, or maybe you don’t, but if you’re reading this newsletter, you probably care, to some degree, about their wellbeing.

But let me first start with an anecdote.

A while ago, a friend and I had an argument about the climate crisis. This was not a Republican vs. Democrat argument, like one might expect. We are both fairly liberal in ideology and we both agree that climate change exists. What we couldn’t agree on was whether the responsibility towards managing our shared resources is personal or political.

My friend argued that all resource management was political and therefore individual contributions such as living sustainably, using less resources or practicing recycling doesn’t make a difference. I agree, but also believe –– and perhaps this is too optimistic –– that every small effort counts.

We ended up in a very heated discussion that left both of us with tingling nerves and elevated levels of stress for the entire night. I think we both realized that even within the realm of climate change believers, there can exist a variety of perspectives, and therefore, a variety of arguments where both sides can make irrefutable points.

What does this have to do with polar bears?

Polar bears have become the poster child for the impact of climate change. Their impending extinction is directly the effect of rising carbon emissions and vanishing sea ice. But to those who have nothing to do with polar bears in daily life –– even if they may be staunch climate-change believers –– isn’t a polar just an elusive figurehead? An unrelatable figurehead?

We know that the climate crisis doesn’t only impact polar bears or penguins or the thousands of species that currently are endangered. It affects every human being, whether Democrat or Republican, capitalist or socialist, privileged or not.

And so, our challenge becomes harder: with all these differences between those of us who believe in climate change, how do we share our knowledge with those who don’t? How do we convince them that it is necessary to change our ways of living, in some way or another?

Part of the reason we have forgotten how to talk to each other is because we are too comfortable in our “correct” beliefs. Alarm bells start to go off in our heads as soon as we hear our friends or colleagues say something that sounds contrary. And so, we fight with them, speaking over them to prove our point, or shirk away from the conversation until we find someone who echoes our beliefs back to us.

But none of these methods encourage any further discussion. In fact, if someone feels like their opinions and beliefs are being attacked, the less likely they will be to listen to others, never mind showing acceptance.

Sometimes, we forget that talking to each other is not about being right or being wrong; it is about acceptance, learning and most of all, about two-way communication.

Kwame Christian, the founder and CEO of the American Negotiation Institute, has touted compassionate curiosity as a response to stress instead of the usual fight or flight. Compassionate curiosity involves sharing our concerns with each other without judgment and coming to a solution together.

But the funny thing is, the basest of all our concerns as individuals are almost exactly the same. All of us want access to basic resources, a clean environment, and healthcare.

The real problem lies in the politicization of these concerns. Politicians have very successfully morphed these concerns into divisions of red and blue, which is personally terrifying, because unless we work together, we can never get closer to fixing the biggest crisis of our lives. So how can we depolarize these discussions?

I suggest we start by talking about the things we have in common. How about we talk about bananas being in danger of extinction? Or about global warming reducing the number of ski days every year? Or its effects on beer and coffee?

Part of the trouble also lies in the politicisation of language. Phrases like ‘climate change’ and ‘green energy’ have started to represent a distinct political ideology, such that it can become hard to talk about the climate crisis without being labelled a liberal.

When President Biden’s first introduced the Build Back Better framework, many noticed that it very closely resembled the Green New Deal introduced by congresspeople Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Edward J. Markey, but replaced the controversial “green” with “clean”.

The use of less politically charged language made it harder even for climate deniers to reject it completely. After all, we all want access to clean air, water and energy. A significant chunk of the framework was finally passed as the Inflation Reduction Act.

We need to stop saying that the other side is wrong and start listening to their concerns instead of first shouting out our own. When you talk about the climate crisis with someone with different beliefs, let them share their concerns while you actively listen with curiosity for their ideas and compassion for their feelings. Ask questions to further the discussion and make them feel heard. Tell them that their concerns matter.

I believe the only way to save polar bears is to recognize that the climate crisis affects more than just them. The discussion around this crisis should no longer remain polarized. But if you still believe that that climate change only affects the animals of the Arctic, then maybe we should all be polar bears.