This didn't go well, folks

We tried to "bridge the generational divide" on climate change. We failed.

I’ve been told John Kerry reads this newsletter. I hope he’s reading today.

Last week, I accepted an invitation from Secretary Kerry’s bipartisan climate organization, World War Zero, to moderate a Facebook Live conversation between 18-year-old climate justice activist and Zero Hour founder Jamie Margolin and John Kasich, the Republican former governor of Ohio. The theme of the event was “bridging the generational gap on climate change.”

If you’ve read this newsletter before, you know I’ve interviewed Secretary Kerry about his new group, and I’ve written about why I’m skeptical of its premise. But I agreed to participate in the conversation they organized, because I thought the goal was worthwhile.

World War Zero’s own research shows that while 95 percent of “younger voters” know climate change will cause massive damage unless swift action is taken, only 36 percent of “older voters” agree. In addition, the widest generational gaps of understanding on climate issues are among Republicans, according to Pew Research Center. So I figured, a frank conversation between a young former Bernie Sanders campaigner and a 68-year-old anti-Green New Deal Republican who supports fracking had the potential to be revealing.

It was. But not in the way I had hoped it would be.

The conversation I had prepared for

In the days leading up to Thursday’s event, I had spent a cumulative six hours crafting a format I believed would result in a meaningful discussion—something that ended somewhere a bit deeper than, “let’s both agree we value clean air and drinking water.”

I put together a four-step plan for an hour-long discussion. Step one: determine their differences by playing a rapid word association and “true or false” game. Step two: pick out the most significant gaps in policy, politics, and scientific understanding. Step three: ask each to explain why they believe those gaps exist, and grapple with the factual realities of each parties’ rationales (This is where shit would get real). Finally, with better understanding of each other, we’d see if there were spaces in between they could come to agreement, and if there weren’t, at least they’d understand each other better.

It was, in retrospect, a naive plan. Because Kasich did not want to substantially discuss on any of the differences between he and Margolin; he wanted to get straight to the agreements. And that was a recipe for disaster.

The first sign of trouble: Rejecting the political divide

In my introduction, I pointed out the political party divide between the participants—and Kasich interrupted me. Kasich was a “human being” and an “American,” he said, not worried about planet from a “Republican lens.”

At the same time, he told Margolin that while he “respects” her positions, “you have to bring people along on a bipartisan basis.” “We should forget about all this Republican and Democrat, and we should think of ourselves as human beings,” he said. “This is about an effort to say, ‘How do we get young people to deploy themselves?”

“We’re already deployed,” Margolin shot back.

Margolin was annoyed at Kasich’s suggestion that bridging the generational divide was the younger generation’s responsibility. And I, too, was worried about what the governor’s combined responses meant.

If Kasich wasn’t willing to hold a mirror up to his own generation or his own political party, then how was he truly going to help viewers understand those divide, much less bridge them? And if he got defensive when I pointed out, “You’re a Republican,” what other basic facts would he attempt to fight me on?

Where it all fell apart: The “New Green Deal”

At that point, I explained the structure of the discussion and how I hoped it would go. Margolin cut in to ask if she could confront Kasich about some of his past policy positions. I promised her we’d get to it, and we began the word association game.

We got through five words. It fell apart on “Green New Deal.”

“Listen, this is not the way I want to do this,” Kasich said. “New Green Deal is not a definition of where I am. New Green Deal …”

“It’s Green New Deal,” Margolin interjected.

“They can’t get the votes to pass the New Green Deal in the Congress,” Kasich said, citing “unrelated” social justice provisions. Margolin cut in and said social justice provisions of the Green New Deal are, in fact, related to climate change. “The climate crisis is the consequence of everything wrong we’ve done in society,” she said.

Kasich hit back with a dismissal. “I’m just trying to explain to you there are no votes for it,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen. And I would like to see something happen. … At the end of the day, I appreciate your intensity on all these issues. But we have a responsibility to make sure we do something and not talk about it forever.”

At that point, fire was crackling behind Margolin’s eyes. The governor had disrespected her policy of choice by repeatedly misnaming it. He had patronized her by repeatedly complimenting her “intensity” and “passion” while dismissing her ideas. I could also see she felt conflicted; she was trying to respect my discussion format, but wanted to respond to his points.

So, at around the 20-minute mark, I abandoned my discussion plan. At least they’d have equal footing to duke it out.

My takeaway from the rest of the discussion: Kasich needs information

If you’d like to watch the whole discussion, it is here. Here’s what I took away.

Governor Kasich lacks a basic factual understanding of the climate crisis, the reason we have one, and what we need to do to fix it. Until he gains such understanding, he should not be given a huge platform under the guise of John Kerry’s climate organization to say what should and shouldn’t be done to solve the climate crisis.

A few examples:

  • Kasich thinks there are “questions about all of the science.” According to the IPCC, avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming requires the world to slash emissions by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. Then it must reach net-zero around 2050. This is the only scenario at which impacts of warming are reversible. This is not a debate. This is the consensus of more than a thousand climate scientists from all over the world.

    Kasich, however, still thinks it is a debate. “We can debate about 2050, or 2030 or whatever, but I’m trying to get you to understand that there are many people who just don’t take this seriously right now,” he said. “There are questions about all of the science.” I responded: “There are questions, but they are questions of public opinion.” Kasich said: “I don’t think so. There’s a lot of different scientists who say a lot of different things.” Margolin said: “No, no.” Kasich: “There is, ok?”

    [whispers]: there isn’t.

  • Kasich says to solve climate change, “the key is to get [deniers] to listen.” Repeatedly during our conversation, Kasich harped on the importance of converting “deniers” into “believers,” and how this was the core challenge of the younger generation to solving climate change. It is not. Actual “deniers” make up a very small portion of the population. The key, according to the Yale Program on Climate Communications, is convincing people who are already concerned about climate change but not alarmed enough to support scientifically necessary changes.

    Perhaps the fact that Kasich falls into that category of “concerned but not alarmed” people is why he doesn’t see the need to be convinced of anything. In our conversation, I asked him if he felt fear about climate change. He said: “Fear is not a way to really do things.” At the same time, he said “My fear is that the effects will become irreversible.” That happens at 1.5 degrees Celsius. See above bullet point.

  • Kasich says he knows nothing about fossil fuel-funded climate denial. The governor was very keen on finding an area where he and Margolin could agree. At around the 50 minute mark, I asked if they could both agree that the fossil fuel industry played a role in spreading disinformation about climate science, in order to sow doubt about the severity of the crisis and achieve policy delay.

    Kasich did not agree, and asked Margolin to send him information about it. “Just get me the information, and if I see it, I can talk about it,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to be “questioning people’s integrity.”

    I would like to be generous here. But if you do not know about the role of disinformation in causing the climate crisis, you are not qualified to lead high-profile discussions about how to solve it. Period.

    Note: Kasich did, however, say he’d be happy to speak out about fossil fuel disinformation if he learned more about it. Margolin promised to get him that information. So, TBD!

Other notable moments/quotes

—KASICH ON FRACKING: “I don’t think fracking has hurt people in my state of Ohio. In fact, they overwhelmingly support it.”

—MARGOLIN PRESSES KASICH ON PIPELINES: “Do you agree there shouldn’t be any more fossil fuel pipelines built? No more Keystone XL? No more Dakota access?” Kasich’s reply: “I don’t know. I’m not sure about it. I’m not informed enough, really, to say there shouldn’t be any more pipelines.”

KASICH GETS AN ‘AGREE’ FROM MARGOLIN: “I want to stop the runoff from the agriculture fields into great lakes. The use of this fertilizer is a mistake. What do you think about that one?” Margolin: “Yeah, that’s definitely something I could agree upon.”

KASICH ON MOMENTUM-BUILDING: “Because of your intensity and your knowledge, you could move me to join you on some things that you’re not even thinking about now. I’ve tried to find things I agree with people on, because if we work together, it’s amazing how the next thing can happen as we get to know one another. That’s what I want you to think about. If you can make some progress, you get momentum for the next thing.”

MARGOLIN EXPLAINS HER ANGER: “The burden doesn’t rely on [young people]. You have been in a literal position of power as governor. You could have made great strides to take action on the climate crisis. Instead, back then, you were acting in a way that your policies screamed climate denial. You weren’t cutting fossil fuel emissions to what they should be. You say, “good for me” because I’m doing the work. It’s not our job. You had a job. We’ll do what we can to clean it up, but in the end, it can’t be on us.”

We want to do it again - but without the “both sides” falsehoods

Margolin and I each believe it’s important to bridge generational and political divides on climate change. So we would both like to try a discussion like this again—particularly with someone who is older, and more conservative leaning than the average youth climate activist.

What we won’t do, however, is engage in another climate-focused debate with someone who denies or is otherwise unaware of basic facts about this crisis, or who is unwilling to discuss disagreements before agreements. Because by doing so, we are playing right into the fossil fuel industry’s hands.

For decades, climate activists and journalists were forced to play ball in a political and media environment that claimed there were two legitimate sides to the climate crisis: It’s real and it’s not. The latter was never legitimate, but the fossil fuel industry’s funding and influence made it so.

Now, we’re being asked to play ball in a new environment—but this time, the two sides are: Act now or wait. And still, only one of these arguments is scientifically legitimate.

The good news is: there are a range of arguments, disagreements and agreements to be had within the “act now” space. I look forward to moderating those conversations, and I look forward to being respected when I do.

Margolin’s take

I asked Margolin how she thought the interview went. Here is what she said:

—What was the moment (or moments, if there are more than one) that you knew the conversation wasn't going to go how you expected?

When the Governor kept steamrolling over you, the moderator, and not respecting the planning and preparation you had done for our conversation, that's when I realized this conversation wasn't going to go the way I expected. Also when the Governor kept bringing up basic things like, “Can we agree that we both like clean air and water?”" and avoiding to actually agree on anything CLIMATE CHANGE related with me, I realized he was stuck in an outdated conversation.

When he couldn't agree with the basic facts of the climate crisis, that's when I realized this wasn't the conversation I thought we were going to have. The issue was, he couldn't even agree on some basic facts of climate change and was trying to cop out by saying "well we both like clean water." You can't have a reasonable conversation about a topic with someone who can't agree on the basic facts.

—Why is it so disrespectful to you to be praised for your "passion" and "articulateness"? 

Acting impressed with how "articulate" and "passionate" I am is pretty much saying, "wow, how cute that this girl knows how to talk." That's not a compliment, it's simply acting impressed by the fact that I can talk. I don't want to be praised for having the basic ability to care about something and communicate what I feel, I want to have a productive conversation where my points are heard and internalized and I am instead respected for all the hard work I have done. 

—What's a better way to compliment you and show you respect?

Action. ACTION is how you compliment me and show respect, because to be honest I'm done with empty praise. If you're a politician who has had the opportunity to be in a position of power where you could have made actual change—and you didn't make a difference and instead caused serious damage, then your compliments mean nothing to me. Use your power and privilege to actually tackle this crisis. That's the best type of respect you could show me. 

In terms of showing me respect in a conversation—don't debate the facts. Have respect for the facts, the science, and do not try to dance around and debate facts with me. It's disrespectful to show up to a conversation without being able to agree on solid, undebatable facts. 

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