Is it possible to respectfully disagree?

The world is full of people shouting at each other, each utterly convinced that they are right and their opponent is the devil incarnate. It is so tempting to do, isn’t it – to indulge that volcano in your tummy, to not try to understand, to not stretch out your hand and risk it being bitten off, to not have to undo your own prejudices and fears and doubts by holding them up to scrutiny. When that thing that you are speaking about and opening up about is a fundamental part of your identity, it is even harder to allow others in; others who disagree, who cannot see what you are so passionate about; who do not know that when you are asked to justify yourself you do it with a pounding heart and fear in your bones and a dry mouth that will not let you speak. I do not know why, but one of the things I feel that way about is human-driven climate change. It is not something rational, for me; it is as driven by my faith and my heart and my churning stomach as is the belief that every one of us is equally loved and equally precious to God. 

I doubt I’m the only person on this side of the debate who struggles to understand the opposing perspective, even if others are less irrationally emotional about the whole thing. So, I tried to find out what the other side of the debate actually is. Here are five questions, asked of a friend I trust and respect who happens to fundamentally disagree with me. My own responses follow as well.

  1. How would you describe your own view of climate change? 

C: My view is that the climate is almost certainly changing, but that this is probably mostly natural, and that at present we have no way of determining the long-term trend.  We might warm up or we might have another ice age.  We are overdue an ice age, given the general climate trends of the quaternary.  It seems unlikely human activity has no effect, but I don’t think it is likely to be the main controlling factor.

Me: I believe that humanity is causing the climate to change dramatically and dangerously, at an unprecedented rate. Would it have changed anyway, without human intervention? Of course, eventually. The climate is not something that is static; the earth has gone through cycles of dramatic warming and dramatic cooling before. What is different this time is the speed with which we are destroying what the earth has taken millennia to create; the devastation that is likely to ensue; and the overwhelming arrogance of a species that believes itself to be impervious to its actions when that is patently not the case.

2. What are the main things that make you think this way about it? 

C: My family are mostly scientists who are fairly sceptical of it, and a lot of the science doesn’t seem to be really sound: for instance, no-one seems to have come up with conditions that would prove that it isn’t happening.  A lot of the data seems either badly worked out statistics (you have to use a particular non-standard moving average to get the hockey stick graph, for instance), overstretched proxy data (tree rings), changes or recalibrations in the way things are measured, or interpreted in the light of a curious assumption that the climate doesn’t naturally change. 

I’ve done enough geology and palaeontology to be sure that assumption is false – indeed, glaciers have advanced and retreated in historical time – and as it is difficult to tell the difference between overnight and half a million years in a lot of “fossilised” data, we don’t have much idea how quickly some of the changes typically happen.  Moreover, so far, a lot of global warming predications haven’t been fulfilled, and they are having to try to come up with explanations regarding why not.  This doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong overall, but it does mean they are very far from being able to claim that it is more than a theory.

I don’t believe the majority of scientists agree on human caused climate change, I think that anyone involved who says, “Hang on, might we be wrong about this?” is pushed out of climate science – cannot get grants for research, for example.  This casts doubt on all the normal processes of checking such as peer reviewing.  I would actually be more likely to believe it if they came across as agreeing less, because I would be happier to trust the integrity of the processes involved.

Me: It starts as a family thing for me too. The first time I remember hearing about climate change was when I was back at school, and it was called the greenhouse effect. A biology teacher I loved very much (I sort of had to – he was my dad) told us then to put money on it being a white Christmas in 2010, because by then, the climate would have changed so much that it was pretty much a certainty. 2010 came eventually, even though to the schoolchildren he was speaking to it felt like a lifetime away. In the intervening time, he had died and I had become a mother. And, for the first time in my memory, that Christmas there were inches of snow on the ground.

It isn’t just sentimentality, though. He may have started me down this path but continuing along it was my choice. The majority of the world’s scientists believe that the probability of climate change being a consequence of human action is so high as to be almost certain – the IPCC put the probability at 95%. I am not a scientist; I am a teacher. As such, I would be frustrated if a room full of scientists who had never taught literacy were to come into my classroom and tell me I’m doing it wrong; and I’m not about to do the same thing to them. That is what peer reviews and citations and transparency of funding streams and expected outcomes are for. If, with all those safeguards, a particular community overwhelmingly agrees with each other – quite a feat in any community at all – then I am happy to trust the agreement they have reached.

3. What, if anything, would make you change your mind about it? 

C: The global warming people coming up with conditions that would prove they were wrong, and then finding that what happened were the conditions that proved they were right!  Actually, “proof” in the strict sense is probably not entirely applicable to this type of weather forecasting.  But a combination of taking alternative theories seriously, of having good scientific evidence for the correctness of this theory rather than the others, perhaps combined with odds and ends like being able to predict the weather for next month/year on the same model (!) would convince me that it was more probable than not.  It is difficult to give an exact set of conditions on something like this, because there is no knowing what evidence might turn up or what paradigm shifts might be involved in coming to a better understanding of climactic patterns.

Me: This is a fundamental part of what makes me who I am, and letting that go would be very hard for me; I am honest enough to admit that my emotions, as much as my reason, would have to be involved for me to change my beliefs. If the climate stopped changing whilst human action remained the same, that would probably convince me! Alternatively, if we were to genuinely reform our actions, as a global community; to take responsibility for what we produce and reduce our emissions to actually meet the requirements of the international agreements that have been signed into law; if that was to happen and there was no change to the climate, then again, that would go a long way to changing my mind.

4. What, if any, connection is there between your faith and your view of climate change? 

C: I’m not sure there is one.  My faith dictates a certain relationship to the Creation – that we should aim to be stewards rather than consumers – but that is to do with what is to be done in response to human knowledge of what is happening and what is needed.  It requires me to think about what I am dealing with and how I should rightly deal with it, it doesn’t offer information as to what is happening or detailed commands as to how to engage with it!

Me: This earth that we live on is precious, fragile, and not ours to destroy. Whether we see ourselves as stewards asked to care for creation by God, or use the more bohemian phrase that “we do not own the earth; we borrow it from our children”, in essence we are saying the same thing: that we are tasked with sustaining something now that will in turn sustain others in perpetuity. My faith tells me we are all part of one living, breathing body, stretching into the past and into the future. The threat of climate catastrophe, to me, is a threat to that body; to the chances and choices of many who are alive today, and all who will live in the future.

5. What question should I have asked that I didn’t, because my own bias meant I didn’t think of it? 

C: *Giggle* Probably, “How does your view on global warming affect your view/practice of ecology?”  It means I’m less bothered about CO2 emissions and keener on things like not allowing chemicals to get into the atmosphere that wouldn’t be there at all without human activity (e.g. CFCs). CO2 has always been there, and is an essential part of photosynthesis and therefore of almost all ecosystems (not that we want to suffocate anything – you can have too much of a good thing)!  Chemicals that aren’t usually there are a totally different matter.  I’m also more concerned about a range of things like preserving habitats and species, and sustainable practices, for a range of different practical reasons, rather than having a single focus on one issue.  Of course, the reason I think it matters does come back to the fact that my Christian beliefs give us a duty of stewardship and not possession.

Me: My view of ecology is informed by the same pressure of emotion and drive as my view of climate change, and stems from the same roots. Single use plastic that is abandoned in oceans or shipped to countries in the Global South for “recycling”; pesticides that decimate the insect-life we rely on to keep the eco-system alive; constantly rising emissions that cause the atmosphere to heat unnaturally quickly and will lead to the tropics becoming too hot for humans to live in within the next 100 years; to me, they are all linked, and all deplorable.

Image by No-longer-here from Pixabay


To all (FE) teachers everywhere

Do you remember August, when you couldn’t imagine how to start? You walked into those echoing classrooms, with spaced-out, haphazard desks like a pre-schooler’s teeth, full of gaps where something valuable used to be, waiting impatiently to be filled with new life; though in this case, that wait might go on for years. Do you remember putting on a visor for the first time and getting vertigo, as though you would be shouting your lessons whilst trapped inside a fishbowl? There was the exhausting uncertainty of new procedures, every walk to the classroom becoming a fraught one way system that introduced you to staircases you never knew existed and blocked off familiar walkways without warning. You stood at the front of the room behind the ominous new screens and tried to remember what it felt like to teach a room full of students, when you hadn’t seen that many people in one place for six months at least; and all you were sure about was how utterly, bone-crushingly weary you were.

Do you remember September, when you thought you couldn’t go on? Each day started with the same PowerPoint, reminding all students that they must wear masks – like this, not like that – and stay at least as far apart as a full-grown alligator. Do you remember wishing you had one of those to hand, sometimes, walking around a room full of strangers as they crowded around you and you felt exposed and out of control? Your days became an endless looping lesson: smile, teach, wipe down the desks, take a deep breath where no one can see it behind your mask; and repeat. Half length lessons to allow for double the space between students; half hearted teaching to allow for the lack of movement, of resources, of relationship-building between everyone in the room.

Green background with yellow writing, saying "physical distancing - keep 1 alligator". Two white stick men with a white alligator between them demonstrates what is meant.

Do you remember October, when you knew for a fact you couldn’t go on? Do you remember that first time you got a call from a student, voice shaking as they told you that they had tested positive, how your heart pounded but your tone was steady as you talked them through what happened next whilst ending the call as quickly as possible to go through the increasingly familiar cycle of who needed to be told, and when, and how much? And the calls kept coming, and your own bubbles burst, and you became an expert in language that never had meaning before, like blended learning, and live-streaming Virtual Learning Environments, and “please don’t swear in this classroom, everything you say is being transmitted to those at home, and their kids are listening too.”

November and December blurred into one; no lockdown for education, no breathing space, no rest. Gather any evidence that you’ve ever completed work because we still don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know if you’ll have exams or not, we don’t know if we’ll be here next week, we don’t know if you will be either. And at last, Christmas came; and with it came the strong supposition that we would not be back after the break; the frantic reorganisation to see as many as possible through mocks, through assessments, through funding-driven paperwork before the clock struck midnight and we turned into too-highly-transmitting pumpkins; the knowledge that we had one afternoon to take everything we would need to prepare for potentially months of remote teaching.

January came, and I remember that. Mixed messages poured from the media, the government, the exam boards, bombarding us with “We know you want to know the answers; we don’t know when we’ll have them.” Students bombarded us, full of fear and uncertainty as they grappled with what might be asked of them, and we, who are so used to having all the answers, had no way of supporting them through. All lessons were live-streamed; all work submitted electronically; and we all spent hours hunched sideways over photographs of blurred handwriting, painstakingly drawing out the good points and the necessary improvements, only to have to start all over again when the mouse jumped and the highlighter flew in the wrong direction and the only way to correct it was to click to remove all ink from the photograph. January was also the month of upgrading home WiFi systems; of children unable to access Zoom calls from school because their teacher-parents had all the household devices in use; of teaching adults who did not know what a [shift] key or the @ symbol were how to hold them both down together to write an email address, and so allow them to access the lesson that was their only form of social contact in a week.

What about February; do you remember that? Do you remember talking to your students about the vaccines, answering their questions, hearing their stories, encouraging them to take it as soon as they were offered it, knowing that your own turn would not come for a long, long time yet? That strange sense of being proud of the care assistants, the school cleaners, the older and vulnerable and desperate individuals you teach and yet, for the first time in the relationship you have built and cultivated for years with your students, also being envious of what they had that you did not.

Do you remember March, with its feeling of being catapulted into a jet stream without being given time to work out where it was going, or how to get out at the end? Bam! Exams are back on for adult students – but to get them all through, they must sit them in 3 weeks. Bam! GCSEs are off and GCSE-style assessments are on; you know your students best, so it’s only fair you work out if they pass or fail; hope you don’t mind playing God with the lives of the people you have invested so much in for the last 6 months? Bam! Here are the new rules, the new requirements you need to remember, the new announcements that need to be made – masks must be stronger, lateral flow tests must be taken and reported, hope should probably be left at the door.

May. Beautiful May, that should draw the year to an close, full of presents and celebrations of the end of a hard year with a definite end. No beautiful May this year, but rather a bleeding into June, an unceasing cycle of exam retakes, and paperwork, and confused decisions that are reversed in minutes, and fear that, after all this, we would receive no funding for these students, forgotten at the best of times, and goodness knows, these are not the best of times; fear that as a result our own jobs would be lost, as rumours began, as rumours always do, about what next year would look like, and feel like, and how hard it will still be.

But do you know what? Now, it is July. And you, who were convinced at every step of this journey that you could not go on, have made it. You have done it. We have done it. And now, finally, superhero that you are, it is time to put down that cape and time, at last, to rest.

A lake with birds swimming on it, with a tree on the right-hand side, and dry earth with roots showing through in the foreground. It's a beautiful early summer day.
Peace. At last.