I signed up for the workshop because I was at my wit’s end. I’ve been a “climate change warrior” for over ten years. It’s been like climbing uphill over loose gravel—for every step forward, we slid back two.
The slow progress hasn’t been for lack of solutions.
The slow progress has been for lack of relationship.
The “left” and the “right” don’t know how to talk or listen to one another. There is no foundation of trust or respect. Very little kindness or partnership. We don’t know how to find common ground. And without that, we can’t move forward. So I did what any good activist does when she feels like she can’t move forward: I signed up for a workshop.
The workshop, hosted by Braver Angels, was called “Finding Common Ground in Addressing Climate Change”. For three hours on a Saturday afternoon, twelve of us—six “reds” and six “blues” engaged in a series of exercises designed to help us listen and speak with curiosity and respect. The goal was not to change minds but to find solutions we could all agree on.
I lean blue. Which is to say I vote Democrat, and refer to myself as liberal or progressive. About 99% of my friends lean blue. There are very few people in my life who lean red (i.e.–Republican, conservative, or Tea Party) and even fewer with whom I’ve had a satisfying conversation about the climate crisis.
I was ready for that to change.
I printed out the workshop materials, filled my water glass, checked my lipstick, and clicked the Zoom link. Faces began to populate the screen. Many smiled. Off screen under my desk my leg bounced up and down with nervous energy. I didn’t trust myself to listen without judgment and I worried that I would unintentionally say something offensive.
Randy and Mary, the two co-moderators, welcomed us and reviewed the ground rules—all of which were designed to promote respect and emotional safety. For the first exercise, we were paired up–one red with one blue–and sent to breakout rooms to share our story.
My partner was a conservative African-American Evangelical Baptist pastor from Kansas. I sat forward in my chair, excited and ready to listen.
“There is a misperception that Republicans don’t care about the environment,” Franklin said to me. “That isn’t true. I believe we can find common ground on almost any issue. We all want good schools, clean air, clean water, we want to feel safe—we just have different ways of getting there. I think we need a multi-faceted approach to addressing climate change,” he said.
I watched his face in the tiny square. His manner was gentle and warm. I nodded my head up and down in agreement with his words. The timer beeped and it was my turn to talk.
I said, “I didn’t end up doing this work out of my interest in ‘the environment.’ I wanted to work with ordinary citizens to make the world safer, cleaner, fairer for everyone. Climate was my way in.”
He listened with his whole body, didn’t interrupt or contradict me, and when he was unclear about something, he said, “Tell me more…”
The timer beeped and we rejoined the group to share our take-aways. Several people said they were pleasantly surprised—they discovered they had more in common than they expected.
For the next exercise, the blues went to one breakout room and the reds to another. Our task was to create a list of shared values, concerns, and proposed solutions. All six of us had to agree before anything could be added to the list. One participant wanted to add population control as a solution, but one woman didn’t agree with it as a solution. She suggested that we say ‘population planning’ and identify it as a concern rather than a solution. We all agreed and added it to the list. Someone else offered nuclear energy but we were not unanimous, so it didn’t make it to the list.
I twisted and turned in my chair, sat forward, leaned back, forced myself to calm my breath. The blues were not of one mind. It was hard to sit still. Group process is messy at best. I looked at the clock. We were at the mid-point of the workshop.
We completed our list and reconvened with the whole group.
For the final exercise, we reviewed the two lists, to figure out which items would make a final combined, co-signed list. We asked questions for clarification. If one or more people from either side did not support one of the ideas, it didn’t make the final list.
A blue value read: “Environmental justice—some communities need more help than others.” The phrase “environmental justice” was a trigger phrase for a few of the reds. When the language was changed to read “do no harm policies”, we all gave our consent.
Blues used the word “urgency” in one of the statements. One red did not see climate change as urgent. Several other reds did. Just as the blues were not of one mind, neither were the reds.
In the end, our combined group of reds and blues identified seven values, eight concerns and seven solutions upon which we all agreed. The moderators were overwhelmed with delight. The results exceeded their wildest expectations.
I looked at the clock. It was five minutes to the hour. In three hours, twelve people with varying political views had come together to find common ground in addressing climate change. We had been respectful, curious, and kind. We didn’t solve the issue. Heck, we didn’t even agree on the urgency of the issue. But we did find common ground. It was a beginning. A baby step.
A possible path forward.