Former climate 'denier' regrets 'how wrongheaded but certain I was'
John Kaiser wheeled a cart with a TV and VCR into the lobby of an academic building on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, popped in a well-worn VHS cassette, and played a video extolling the virtues of an atmosphere rich in CO2.
â€œIt was a video that was made to look like a news show; there were people who looked like anchors in it,â€ recalled Kaiser. It was part of a campaign to attract students to join a conservative movement on his undergraduate campus.
â€œ[The video] was all about how CO2 levels are rising, but thatâ€™s great! Because plants need CO2, and the more CO2 there is, the more plants will grow and the more crops weâ€™ll have. And the more weâ€™ll have to eat and this will be an age of abundance because of all the extra CO2 in the atmosphere.â€
Kaiser recounted the spin with a dash of wry humor, â€œSo donâ€™t worry about what the lefties and the liberals tell you, this is actually going to make things better.â€
â€œI remember playing that video so many times,â€ he mused. Of all the types of information the group shared, this one garnered the most ardent pushback. Kaiser described a memorable instance when a challenger confronted him, â€œDo you realize the damage youâ€™re doing peddling this s***?â€
Kaiserâ€™s confidence at the time was telling: â€œI was so certain in my convictions, that I said, â€˜Iâ€™m not lying, you can see the citations in the video, right?â€™ But I didnâ€™t realize the extent to which they were twisting the references they had. I mean, I was 19 years old, and the video confirmed what I already believed, and so my confirmation bias was really strong at that moment. I didnâ€™t have enough experience to overcome it. Iâ€™m ashamed I believed this stuff.â€
â€˜I should have looked more deeplyâ€™
Kaiser says he now is motivated to publicly share his turnabout on climate change. â€œI just feel guilty that my generation was part of setting up the politics of today. That we played a role in spreading misinformation. That we were unwitting allies of merchants of doubt â€¦. We didnâ€™t realize that coal companies and oil companies were funding all of these things we were showing about the positive benefits of CO2.â€
â€œI do feel some responsibility that I should have known better, that I should have looked more deeply into the issue, into who was funding the stuff that I was putting out there.â€
â€œIf I can do something to remedy it, it would be a good penance,â€ he had written to me prior to our interview. In that vein, Kaiser offers four takeaways drawn from his former role as a spokesperson against climate action.
1. Make it personal and local.
â€œSo much of what you â€¦ care about, when youâ€™re conservative, relates to the people who are in your circle,â€ explained Kaiser. â€œIf you know people who are in your circle who are gay, well then youâ€™re going to be more forgiving or more open on the gay marriage issue.â€
â€œMaybe when climate change starts affecting their hometown, thatâ€™s when theyâ€™re going to accept it because that just seems to be ingrained within conservatism, that it has to be something that I can feel locally in my community. I think one of the quintessential aspects of conservatism is a distrust of outsiders.â€
â€œ[Climate change] has now suddenly become personal and so you can push the [conservative] ideology aside a little bit to actually address it because you are willing to trust and accept that itâ€™s happening. Because now youâ€™re getting testimony from the inside.â€
Kaiser suggests shifting to a strictly economics-based argument. â€œIf you want to move people quickly in the next five to 10 years, itâ€™s probably easier to present an argument that solar and wind energy are now entirely viable than it is to present an argument that climate change is real and we need to address it.â€
What? Me worry? Yes â€¦ â€˜thought horrifies me â€¦ I worryâ€™
Kaiser reflects on his contributions to stall action on climate change, and grapples with the implications for the future. â€œNow Iâ€™m a 39-year-old man with children who are going to reach maturity â€¦ in a world that will be worse than the one that I came to maturity in. That thought horrifies me, especially because I was out there on a weekly basis telling people, donâ€™t worry about global warming, itâ€™s not going to be a problem.â€
â€œIâ€™d like to say that thereâ€™s a part of me that believes that, politically and technologically, we will figure this out in time. And that the technology of geothermal, solar, wind, all of that, will advance â€¦ to fully replace coal, and a big chunk of oil. Thereâ€™s a part of me that wants to believe that. But, having been a part of climate change denial, I worry about whether we can get to that point. And I worry especially as we see active attempts at sabotaging things like renewable energy industries.â€
â€œTime will tell, we will see. I worry that it wonâ€™t be enough.â€