Get to know your opponents

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Recently, I was made aware of a conversation that was pretty interesting. Person A, a friend of mine, was discussing climate change in class with Person B, someone I have never met.

Person B is an extremely pro-science and pro-environment guy. Always recycles, always takes the bus, etc. He really wants to save the Earth, and wishes everyone else would do the same.

Person A, on the other hand, doesn’t really care about that stuff. She has her own car and won’t hesitate to use it if it is more convenient

When they were talking, the conversation drifted toward climate change. B then proceeded to try to convince A that climate change was real, and a huge problem. He started citing all those studies. A interrupted him.

I already believe in all that stuff. I know climate change is real, I know it is a problem, I’m just selfish and choose my own convenience when I can’t have both.

B was completely confused. I don’t know if most people who are selfish like that usually try to hide it, or just don’t bother explaining, but it seemed to be genuinely the first time he ever heard that argument. To him, anyone who was driving a non-electric car didn’t believe in climate change. He hadn’t realised that anyone could actually choose climate change over the inconvenience of making your schedule around the buses.

And then, to his own surprise, he realised that he didn’t know how to convince someone to save the earth in that situation. I think B is a smart guy. He instantly realised that his usual arguments were all centered around “convincing the opponent that climate change is real”, and that he had none for “convincing the opponent that stopping climate change is worth the inconveniences”.

Yes, you can say that we will go extinct soon. But the thing is, there are at the very least a few generations before anything like that happens. That means that any human we save is probably not born yet, and any human alive now will probably survive either way. We are close enough to see the difference, but not close enough to actually suffer the very bad consequences.

Imagine this situation. Right before getting in your car in the morning, you are told that, if you don’t take the bus today, a random person in the world will trip on the sidewalk and scrape his knee. Within 10 minutes it won’t hurt anymore, and within a day he will probably have forgotten about it.

Now you have to choose between getting a minor invonvenience, or forcing a minor inconvenience on somebody else. I wouldn’t guess with confidence anybody’s decision in that situation. It depends on the person.

Climate change is basically that. Someone tells you that you can choose between suffering a huge number of minor inconveniences during the rest of your life, or forcing one major inconvenience on a bunch of people you will never meet. Furthermore, if the majority chooses to throw those people under the bus, then you suffering your inconveniences won’t even save them, and will be a waste.

It’s very important to understand that someone making a different decision than you does not mean that they didn’t get all the information. On the issue of climate change, I would say there are 7 groups

  1. The people who believe in Climate change and are doing everything in their power to stop it (Person B)
  2. The people who have no idea what climate change is.
  3. The people who believe that climate change is a lie, a hoax, a conspiracy or just a mistaken belief.
  4. The people who believe that climate change is real, but is not really a problem (Ex: Someone thinks that the planet warming up is a good thing, or won’t really make a difference).
  5. The people who believe that climate change is real and is a problem, but that anything they could do is too insignificant to make a good difference, therefore not worth it
  6. The people who believe that climate change is real and is a problem, but don’t want to sacrifice their own advantages for it, because they think it’s a bad deal for them (Person A)
  7. The people who believe that climate change is real and is a problem, and are pretending to do everything in their power to stop it to get social credit or recognition, but aren’t actually trying to help (the hypocrite version of group #6)

I think that most people in group 6 are publicly pretending to be in group 2, 3, 4, 5 or 7, because admitting that you are selfish is usually bad for you in our society. I think that this has created this situation where some people have genuinely never even considered that something like group #6 could exist, even though it seems obvious to some people.


So here is my message to anyone, no matter which side you are on:

First of all, try to honestly admit which group you belong to. If you are confident in your decision, you should be able to defend it, and actually hearing arguments against your position instead of against an hypothetical view that you don’t hold might help you either change your mind or understand your own view more.

Then, try to figure out which side your opponent is actually on. Start by asking nicely. If you are like person B, no matter how credible your information is, if you try to convince any group other than #2 or #3 that climate change is real, you will waste your time. They already agree with that! You need to do a bit more research, and find data to prove that their contributions are worth more than they believe, or find advantages for them to add to the inconveniences to balance things out, etc. The only thing that is worse off from you painting all the other groups with a wide brush, is your own argument. It’s already hard enough to change someone’s mind, if you argue in a completely useless direction, you will only waste your time and energy.

Of course, the same thing goes for the other groups. If you truly believe that climate change exists but you can’t make a difference, don’t try to tell other people who think it exists that it’s a lie just because you think it’s easier to argue that.

Sometimes it might be hard, but I don’t think anyone can actually rationalize pretending your opponents are one single hive mind of bullshit. You can act like they are, because it’s easier to see yourself as smart if you do, but as soon as someone points it out (in this case, me), if you want to keep thinking that you are smart, you either need to refute my point, or accept that there is a wide range of reasons to disagree with you, and if you only know how to counter one, you probably won’t win your arguments.