We have a bitter climate change debate. One side warns that global warming can lead to environmental catastrophe. We have to do something about it. 

Some people even worry we have only a few years to reverse climate change! After that, the whole planet will become unlivable! Humans might even become extinct! So they must somehow coerce the rest of the world to make drastic changes! Like become vegan!

The other side denies that the earth is warming. Or if it is, humans can’t do much about it. In this view, why bother about it? It’s a hoax. It can only lead to economic and political catastrophe. Look at poor coal!

Actually, the war on coal is over. Obama-era regulations didn’t start it. Trump-era deregulation won’t change the outcome. Coal lost. The climate change debate may have contributed some to the demise of coal. It didn’t cause it. Coal lost because technology and markets have changed. 

Climate change is real. If humans haven’t caused it, our technology has certainly contributed. On the other hand, the early to mid 19th century saw the end of the so-called Little Ice Age.  It started in about 1300. It’s easy to find information on the Little Ice Age. It’s less easy to find any attempt to describe earlier periods of similar length. But it stands to reason that if a period of notable cooling started in 1300, then global temperatures must have been warmer earlier.

In that case, some ask, why would global warming be a problem now?

For one thing, the earth has a lot more people than in 1300. A much higher percentage of the population lives in cities. More cities are near coasts. Technology has advanced greatly since then, too. We can build taller buildings and live in higher population density than ever before.

As glaciers and polar ice caps melt, sea level rises. A higher sea level might not have mattered in 1300. Most people didn’t live in cities. But now, rising sea levels threaten low-lying cities like New Orleans. If coastal cities become uninhabitable, where will all those people go? I could go on to describe other problems global warming could cause. But I’m more interested in what it takes to achieve solutions. The climate change debate in its current form actually gets in the way.

After all, what’s more important? Doing something to mitigate rising temperatures? Or persuading people to accept a particular explanation of them?

We must appeal to people to change their ways because of what matters to them, not try to make something else matter. 

In 2011, the marketing firm Ogilvie & Mather published a study about attitudes toward environmental issues. It found that about 16% of Americans are what it called “super greens,” and 18% “green rejectors.” That leaves 66% of us in the middle. The super greens consider saving the environment even more important than finding a cure for cancer. No one else does.

Now we have super greens and green rejectors shouting past each other in the climate change debate. Who speaks to the middle? It’s past time to recognize another inconvenient truth. Even climate change deniers approve of some eco-friendly actions.

In 2013, some Tea Party groups joined in pressuring state-regulated utilities to use more solar power More solar means less coal or gas. The Tea Party may have a disproportionate number of climate change deniers. But they based their call on free-market principles and appeal to self-reliance. 

I have seen activists dismiss corporate sustainability efforts. If they don’t address climate change, then they’re no good. How short-sighted!

Walmart and other large corporations have redesigned their entire distribution systems. Now they use less fuel. They’re probably motivated more by cost-cutting than the specter of climate change. But after all, using less fuel means emitting less greenhouse gases. Less greenhouse gases means less global warming.

Environmentalists ought to applaud and encourage anyone who is taking steps to slow global warming. Even if they don’t have the same opinions about climate change. 

Here’s that Ogilvie & Mather study I mentioned: Mainstream Green: Moving Sustainability from Niche to Normal / Graceann Bennett and Freya Williams. Ogilvie & Mather, 2011.