Climate Deniers Drink Coffee
And other things I learned on a failed first date with one
He was tall and cute and the perfect amount of awkward. Our first date was on a balmy Tucson evening in January. I scootched back in my chair and crossed my legs beneath my sundress as he asked, "What do you write about?"
"Right now, I'm writing a lot about food."
"Oooh!" he said. "Like restaurant reviews?"
"Well, sort of. I'm interested in how our food systems affect the climate."
He nodded and thought this over. "Do you think this whole climate change thing is going to catch on?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know, 'global warming'?" His voice wore italics and, though his hands didn't leave the table, his fingers became bobbing quotation marks.
I opened my mouth and paused. He smiled that uncomfortable first-date smile and took a sip of his beer.
Hmm, I thought. Yes. The climate is changing, has changed, and humans are central to the story. Sheets of ice are cleaving away from glaciers and more and more carbon dioxide and methane molecules are swarming through the atmosphere, heating it up, and they will continue to do so whether or not the "idea" of global warming, you know, "catches on."
My date took another sip of beer and stared at me with the blue eyes that had prompted me to give him my phone number in the first place.
"I think climate change already has caught on?" I said, hating how my voice rose into a question mark. "I think it's happening? And I think a lot of people agree that, um, it's a … big deal," I said.
"Hmm," he said, and nodded, considering this. He smiled, and in a teasing, flirtatious tone, said, "So you're all into that, the global warming stuff?"
Some believe that the climate deniers will just die out. Not many in my generation get riled up about interracial marriage, for instance—it is, for most of us, entirely a non-issue—and many say that attitudes toward climate change could similarly shift with time. The academic term for old ideas dying along with old people is called "cohort replacement," and according to this logic, all we have to do is wait.
According to this logic, however, an eligible young woman shouldn't still find herself on a date with a very cute 28-year-old man who puts "global warming" in quotation marks.
"Well … I sort of don't think climate change is something to be believed in," I said haltingly. "I mean, it kind of … is." I hesitated, wondering, should I go further?
He changed the subject. "So you said you work at the UA?" he asked. "What do you do?"
I chuckled. "I work in the University's Office of Sustainability."
"Sweet! What do you do there? What exactly is sustainability?" he asked, all blinking blue eyes and lanky curiosity.
Finally, the date ended. I called my sister as I biked home across campus to tell her about my foray back into dating. We laughed—how did I find these people? He was 6-foot-4 to my 6-foot-1: a rare find. He was sweet and courteous: so much potential. He had a college degree!
"How did you meet him?" my sister asked.
"A coffee shop."
"Climate deniers drink coffee?"
"You need a better screening process," she said.
"How do you screen for 'acceptance of climate change'?" I asked.
I rolled through the dust and heat of a 70-degree winter's evening and wondered how I should have responded to his question. How do we talk about something as big as global warming on something so small as a first date? And yet, how can we not? For those of us that live in the desert Southwest—indeed, for all of those who live in extreme climates around the world—it is impossible to ignore the fact that annual temperatures and precipitation levels have already swerved far away from the norm.
What can I say? Yes, climate change is a big and scary idea, but there are all sorts of things we—no, I'm sorry, I'm afraid there will be no "we" after tonight—there are all sorts of things you can and should do to help work towards a solution.
The problem is that "believing" in climate change is not as simple as learning the facts. Psychologists have found that people absorb information selectively, picking and choosing those facts that fit into their already-established worldviews. Yet psychologists have also found that familiarity breeds fondness: Repeated exposure to a new idea leads to progressively lower fear and avoidance and even, eventually, sometimes, to acceptance.
Perhaps my Friday evening offered my blinking, blue-eyed date the chance to ease his mind into the idea—the very big, scary idea—that our world is warming rapidly and we'd better do something about it. But somebody else would have to offer him a second exposure to the concept.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.