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A blog by Ryan Quinn, Robert Quinn, Shawn Quinn, and Amy Lemley

Does It Really Matter If You Believe in Climate Change?

By Emily Plews and Ryan Quinn

Key points in this blog entry:
  • A story of people who were able to collaborate in spite of disagreements about the science of climate change
  • A description of how the positions we negotiate can be red herrings that prevent us from achieving mutual interests
  • Focusing on positivity and commonality can move us past polarization on red-herring issues
This week, we would like to share and then analyze an experience that Emily had a while ago in her efforts to organize a city-wide Earth Day. This story is powerful for many reasons, and we cannot address all of them in one entry. Therefore, in this week’s entry, we will analyze the content, or result, of Emily’s story. In future weeks, we will discuss how she accomplished this result.

The Story

I had volunteered to obtain 20+ signatures necessary to close downtown streets and reserve a large city park for an inaugural city-wide Earth Day celebration in Columbus, Oh.  The task was as daunting and tedious as it sounds. I had to go to at least ten different municipal offices, in a certain sequence, to get officials to sign off on the complex details of road closures, fireways, and crowd control. If even one person refused to sign, the event was canceled.

I had slogged through the process of getting  every signature I needed,  except one. The last signature needed came from a local businessman. I walked past his assistants and into his giant, decorated office and knew the cards were stacked against me.

I showed the businessman the proposed layout of the Earth Day event and made my request. He immediately and firmly said, “No way.” I retorted with some reasonable arguments and questions to surface options and got no where.

Then he asked me if I believed in climate change.

This question began a series of crazy turns in a conversation that lasted for an hour and a half. The businessman had read many books that questioned the validity of climate change and challenged me with that information. I was not knowledgeable about his specific claims. I could tell my responses were weak.

At one point, the businessman said, “I bet you don’t like this politician, either.” It was true that I did not like that politician very much. The businessman then told a story of very personal, kind, human experiences his family had with the politician that I admitted to disliking.

I was moved by the personal story. That empathy mixed with a mess of confusion, anger, exhaustion, and anxiety already brewing in me. I started to sob. He handed me tissues and continued telling his story. I listened.

When the tears and embarrassment subsided, I felt empty but strangely strong. I waited for a long enough pause to acknowledge the kindness of the politician to his family and change topics slightly. I asked him if his family recycles. He took pride in telling me how his kids always recycle and how they changed all the lightbulbs in their house. I then wondered out loud,  “Does it matter if you believe climate change?” One could argue that it matters, but in that moment it didn’t.

This question confused the businessman. As he pondered, I told him about the educational mission of the Earth Day event and how many of the ideas we had hoped attendees would “take home” appeared to be already under consideration by his family. I let him know that I cared deeply about encouraging others to take those steps too, and that is what the event was all about.  I started to leave in calm defeat, but he revisited my documents on his desk, made me promise to change a couple things, and signed on the line.  As I left, I told him that I hoped to see him and his family at the event.


One of the striking lines in this story (and the one we will reflect on today–leaving others to later blog entries) is Emily’s question, “Does it matter if you believe in climate change?” Two observations make this question strinking:

  1. There is considerable money spent on, arguments over, and even rancor felt, in our society today, over the question of whether or not there is climate change.
  2. In the end of her story–and perhaps in the end of many, if not most, of the other stories in our society where people are fighting over climate change–the answer is “No.” It does not matter.

Please do not misunderstand the point here. Does it matter whether or not we are destroying the planet we live on? Of course it does. But in many of our fractious and polarizing debates–the battles that are crippling rather than enhancing our ability to move forward collectively and productively (as in Emily’s conversation)–climate change is a red herring. It does not matter.

This observation is a great example of what Fisher and Ury [1] describe as the difference between positions and interests. In a negotiation, a position is a stance you take, a material outcome. For the businessman in Emily’s story, it appears that the material outcome he wanted was something along the lines of getting others–Emily in particular–to recognize that climate change arguments are not correct. Because he nwas aggressive about his argument, and because Emily does believe in climate change, she fell into a trap of taking the opposing position and arguing with the businessman–even though her expicit reason for entering the room was to get a signature approving the street closure for Earth Day.

An interest–in contrast with a position–is the reason why we take the specific positions we take in our negotiations (or conflicts) with others. We do not know why the businessman felt so strongly about refusing climate change. Perhaps it was because of the economic impact that legislation about climate change would have on his life or business, because he believes that the scientists who do climate change research are not honest, or because it conflicts with the political doctrine he subscribes to. What we do know is that, in the end, the position that there is no such thing as human-induced climate change had little to do with his opposition to Emily’s efforts to organize an Earth Day. He and Emily actually both care enough about conservation or polution or the planet they share that the climate change debate, in the end, was irrelevant. The businessman negotiated some changes in her proposal, but in the end found that he was largely on the same side as Emily.

In our experience, this is a common phenomenon in organizations. The issues that people get worked up about, and that create anger, contention, disruption in operations, and even significant financial problems are often red herrings. Sometimes the problem is that issues have been unnecessarily tied to other issues that they need not be tied to. Sometimes, people just need to know that they and their opinions are valued and then the “big” issues melt away. But whatever the reason, productive conversation and positive organizing often require us to ask what is behind the contentious issue and what we really want. When we do, the possibilities it opens up to us can often be astounding.

The How

Our goal in this blog entry has been to help us see how issues that seem real may not actually be the real issues at all. Because of the human propensity to focus on the negative [2] we often get caught up in unnecessary conflict and fail to recognize that we often have more in common than we think we do. Emily’s efforts to focus on what they did have in common opened up a unique opportunity for collaboration. In subsequent blogs, we will use ressearch to analyze some of the other conversational moves that made this exceptional outcome possible.



[1] Fisher, R. and W. Ury (1983). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York, Penguin Books.

[2] Taylor, S. E. 1991. Asymmetrical effects of positive and negative events: The mobilization-minimization hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 110: 67-85.

5 Responses to “Does It Really Matter If You Believe in Climate Change?”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Yip, Ryan Quinn. Ryan Quinn said: New blog post! Does It Really Matter If You Believe in Climate Change? http://bit.ly/ab0XVg [...]

  2. I love hearing this kind of story. That said, I notice that in this story it is the other person who moved past his position to his underlying interest in order to find common ground. I’m more persuaded by such stories when the storyteller makes the move from position to common-ground interest.

  3. Hugh says:

    I think the general point here is a good one, but I can’t help noticing that had Emily not engaged on the topic of climate change to the point of emotional exhaustion, it sounds like she probably would have walked out of his office with a flat “no” on the topic of the Earth Day celebration anyway.

    So in this particular case, taking up the climate change discussion may or may not have been positive with regards to her longer term interest (climate change) but it actually was positive with respect to her more immediate interests (Earth Day).

    More generally, I worry that there may be a danger in categorizing some topics as “just” positions. If fighting climate change it is to become one of societies collective interests, we need to get there through a lot of little conversations. Avoiding those conversations out a desire to further our immediate interests at the expense of our long-term positions may or may not be a good overall strategy.

    Choosing when to take up the larger conversation, and when to not let it get in the way of getting the immediate good done, that’s a tricky thing.

  4. Emily says:

    I am thrilled by the comments on here. Sorry for the delay in commenting! Eugene: I am thinking a little background might help you see how both of us had to open up from our positions. As a Master of Science from the School of Natural Resources and Environment from University of Michigan, I hesitated to even admit to asking the question “Does it matter if you believe in climate change?” let alone blog about it. Because carbon is invisible and innocuous (as far as I know) without the threat of climate change, the overwhelming majority of advocates conclude that it does matter if one “believes” in climate change. The logic is, you can’t work toward mitigating pollution until you see it as pollution. (Although, this New York Times article about clean energy efforts of climate skeptics is hopeful that behavior changes without this “belief.” There are many arguments to support behavior that reduces carbon. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/19/science/earth /19fossil.html)

    Related note: Hugh, I see where you are coming from and have felt the same way myself, even about this story. Sure the perfect is the enemy of the good but what if the stakes are high and the difference between perfect and good is the difference between life and death? My anxiety is racing just thinking about this… maybe because there is no simple answer. Although, perhaps there are options.

    In this story I chose to go for the “good” over what I thought was the “perfect” at the time. No agreement on climate change but agreement on value of Earth Day celebration. If you see promise in progress, as I do, this is a win.

    I went back to grad school after this event to prepare for the “perfect” argument, so I thought. I hated feeling under informed. I thought I would incubate in classes, talks, and tests to prepare myself to fight facts with facts. This approach can work, but doesn’t always. There is lots of evidence of this approach working in either way.

    Four years later, I am surprised by and grateful for another option: offering and finding shared vision of the future that goes beyond facts and logistics. You can learn all about fostering this dynamic in conversation through books like Lift. To find a place where this concept is discussed closer to home: here is an article about this option written by beloved ecological systems thinker Donella Meadows: http://sustainabilityinstitute.org/pubs/Envisioning.DMeadows.pdf

    I had no idea what I was doing as I lived out the story I told in this blog, which is why I offered it up for public analysis. I think the last, opening movements of the conversation were suggestive of vision. Who knows… that might have made the difference.

  5. RK Sanga says:

    A wonderful story and its practical application. Thanks.

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