How a Climate Change Denier Helped Me Bear Witness

Photo by Graham https://flic.kr/p/873RUtWhen Bernie Glassman gave a workshop at Sweetwater Zen Center in July, he talked a lot about “bearing witness.”

Bearing witness is one of the Three Tenants of the Zen Peacemaker Order — not knowing, bearing witness, and taking action. As I understand the term, it means approaching a situation, person, or idea with no preconceived notions. You observe the world around you just as it is. You don’t judge. And you don’t force any action.

Some time during Glassman’s workshop I remembered that I’m often angered, even enraged, by the people who deny climate change. I tend to blame them for our collective failure to create sustainability. In other words, I judge even though I don’t have any understanding about what goes on in a climate denier’s mind. Oh, I’ve made a few minor stabs at understanding their position, but mostly I look for more ways to justify my own ideas.

Not exactly a bearing witness activity on my part.

I’ve never had a conversation with a climate change denier about climate change.

How can I bear witness to climate change denial if I’ve never even tried to talk with someone who sees the planet in such a different way than I do? And what might happen if I did? I decided to find someone who denies climate change so that I could bear witness to their ideas.

Finding someone turned out to be easier than I expected. I remembered a brief exchange in comments on one of the blogs I write several years ago from Glen Johnson*, a reader I’d gotten to know fairly well in an online kind of way. I’d said something about climate change and he gently disagreed. I didn’t get curious at that point, but I remembered it, partly because he made so much sense on other topics and his disagreement with me was so civil.

I was able to find that exchange and Johnson’s contact information. I emailed him asking him if, indeed, he is a climate change denier and if he would be willing to talk with me about it. Johnson admitted he mostly didn’t believe in global warming and graciously agreed to chat with me via email.

Photo by Amy Youngs https://www.flickr.com/photos/amymyou/9431314171/in/photolist-fnpX82-dTBrMm-9TtTCY-j1jJGQ-afM1XM-bupaBM-dt7fe6-o9qLYF-iqwa3J-cFHzCf-8jWtcV-jzDiwG-ftH6un-i8Gs1J-kWVukF-e8pF5n-digdDd-digrHV-digrPi-bFfXNp-fLf6vs-i55Uas-ncEXWn-dbUyCy-edCScH-e8voXA-ftH7Dg-ofjtM7-dayp4Z-dbUyaf-dc9wsA-dbUz7S-dbUxj4-oyE9bg-fwKAvz-fwMTNe-fwMZh4-cTFWRm-dL46uE-fsXG1b-kWWE5Y-cWLV6J-dv2YP2-fNBv9X-cWLdJU-cb6sAQ-gKsRZy-c9YN8J-fypiQT-fyqbCa
Aerial view of resource extraction in Texas

First thing I learned . . .

The very first thing I learned was that Johnson distinguishes between human-caused climate change and climate change from “natural” causes. He feels the evidence isn’t in to warrant massive intervention through things like carbon tax, which Johnson believes would disrupt economies and cause unintended negative consequences.

I asked about fracking, saying my intuition says that forcing chemicals and water deep into the earth to force oil out can’t be good. Johnson cautioned me about unsubstantiated ideas.

Next I learned how little science I have . . .

Johnson has a much better background in science than I have. While he’s not a scientist, he’s studied it more than me. And he’s more comfortable ploughing through scientific studies than I am.

He pointed me to a site he trusts called, “Watts Up With That?” At first, I found the information on the site pretty reasonable, even though it throws doubt on climate change science. It seemed to focus on smaller issues, like errors in Wikipedia or studies that indicate how small variations in climate can be magnified to big changes temperature changes. The articles I read did not seem to deny climate change directly.

There are posts on the so-called “ClimateGate emails.” In fact, there are more than 250 posts on that scandal, which was a real scandal. I’ve never felt it proved climate change is a scam; others agree and disagree with me.

The fear of unintended consequences . . .

As I continued to bear witness to climate change denial, I discovered that a very close friend of mine, Mike Stowe*, who is a safety engineer, shares Johnson’s concern about the unintended consequences of actions taken to slow climate change. But Johnson and Stowe have one very important difference: the first is mostly a denier, the second is a believer in human-caused climate change. Similar beliefs on a topic where they are far apart.

Photo by canonfather https://flic.kr/p/e8vf5F
Geese fly by wind turbine

Unintended consequences happen in every human endeavor — after all, no one set out to hunt a species to extinction or spill massive amounts of oil in the ocean. Nor did any of us have any idea how much damage would happen in such a relatively recent period — the last hundred or so years.

Today, it’s not hard to find evidence that both solar arrays and wind turbines kill birds — maybe lots of them. This is an example of unintended consequences. But we also now have bladeless wind machines and Bloomberg says traffic and cats cause more harm to birds than wind generators. Mother Jones takes it a step further perhaps with 8 Ways Wind Power Companies Are Trying to Stop Killing Birds and Bats.

Is there a pattern here?

It seems to me there’s a pattern here. I can find solid-seeming data (or solid to me as a non-scientist) on anything from total climate change denial to absolute certainty it’s all our fault. The extremes on either side don’t work and often do more harm then good — at least between friends.

Emptiness and bearing witness can actually help.

One of the truths we all face is we don’t know if we can impact global climate change in a way that will save humankind or even many sentient beings. The dangers are real. Facing them is an absolute necessity if change is to happen. We may not be successful, but if we don’t try we can’t possibly succeed. Doing nothing does not seem like a real alternative to me.

Just my opinion, man

Glassman always ends a point with “just my opinion, man.” I love that and take that on for myself. My opinion is that much of climate change is human made and that means we can take steps to reduce the damage. That’s one of the reasons I write about saving the environment — it’s an action I’m led to take out of my own bearing witness.

Two takeaways for me as a result of this conversation with Johnson:

1) I didn’t realize many deniers were denying the role of human kind in climate change. I disagree, but I’m way less angry at them than I was. I can make distinctions between types of deniers and between types of people who believe in human-caused climate change. In other words, I can listen now, at least part of the time, with a much more open mind.

2) My hunch is that my increased ability to listen will make me more effective as a communicator about what we might be able to achieve. Even if that’s not true, the world has got to be a better place without my rage.

I’d truly love to hear what you have to say about climate change and bearing witness – or anything else, come to think about it.

newsig * Names have been changed to protect their privacy.

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About the Author

Anne Myo-on Wayman is a zen student in the Soto tradition. She lives at the Sweetwater Zen Center (SWZC.com) where she practices and writes, often about writing at AboutFreelanceWriting.com. You can find me on Google +.