The following is an excerpt from the book where Laura Yates recounts the story of an argument with a friend about climate change during a senior trip, and the events that followed.
We were less than a week away from graduating from college, celebrating the achievements of the past four years together, when the conversation moved to the topic of climate change. One of my closest friends said he thought scientists were just trying to scare everyone into changing their behavior. I snapped, and yelled at him for not believing in science. I refused to listen to anything he had to say. I ended the conversation abruptly by saying, ‘This is bullsh*t. I don’t want to talk about this with you at all.’
Everyone froze, and got really quiet.
The rest of the trip was really uncomfortable. In that moment, I shut down my ability to relate to my friends, and completely lost the opportunity to have a valuable conversation about climate change.
With some coaching on pitfalls, I understood what I lost through my way of being in that conversation. I also realized I had the power to change the way both my friend and I remember the conversation. I could open it back up with a different way of being. So I wrote him this letter:
I wanted to talk to you and apologize for the way I acted on vacation. When you said you didn’t believe in man-made climate change, I yelled at you and ended the conversation abruptly. By reacting this way, I wasn’t being open-minded or a true friend – I was acting in an aggressive, dismissive manner that isn’t characteristic of the type of friend or person I want to be.
I want to acknowledge now – because I didn’t when we first had this conversation – that there is uncertainty in climate science. Uncertainty is inherent in all science. The uncertainty scares me because it threatens the choices I’ve made in my life so far. Instead of being authentic and acknowledging the uncertainty, I purposefully diminished the value of what you were saying, asserting that I was right and you were wrong.
The way I reacted hurt our relationship and made everyone around us feel uncomfortable and distanced at a time when we should have been relaxing and enjoying our last few days together.
If I’d been speaking from a place of friendship and love, what I should have said is this: There is some uncertainty about climate change science. Uncertainty is inherent in the scientific process. I hope that the predictions about man-made climate change aren’t as bad as people say. However, I do think it’s important for us as humans to understand the impact we have and take countermeasures in case we are causing these changes in the natural environment, which is why I’ve chosen to work and study in this field.
I hope you feel comfortable telling me and holding me accountable if I flip out like that again – whether it’s at you or any of our friends. I know it seems strange for me to bring this up almost a month after it happened, but that exchange was one of the last ones we had before graduation, and I didn’t want it to be a lasting memory. I want to let you know I really value our friendship and I sincerely apologize for acting in a way that didn’t show you how much your friendship means to me.
Once I finished writing this letter, I decided to call Nick and share it with him, in the hopes that my reopening the conversation in a more positive way might help us strengthen our friendship. Reading Nick this letter forced me to be vulnerable and to open myself up to him, helping him feel more comfortable and willing to interact.
After hearing me read the letter, Nick was quick to tell me he felt some guilt about the way he was being during our original conversation. He expressed an interest in learning more about climate change because it was something I was passionate about. He joked that we’re both pretty passionate people and it wasn’t surprising to him that we’d gotten in an argument in the first place. Hearing him say that made me realize how much more powerful and effective I could be if I approached every conversation with the same amount of passion and a more thoughtful way of being.
Through the difficult and awkward process of writing this letter, I got clear on why the (un)certainty around climate change science was such a hot-button issue for me. It’s surprising and almost scary how many different layers I needed to pull back in order to get rid of the projections of blame on Nick for how the conversation went, and to find my own power in the situation.
A few years later, during a summer internship with the Indiana state government in 2015, I had the opportunity to meet Vice President Mike Pence, who was the Republican Governor of Indiana at the time. He hosted a reception in his office for about thirty interns from the Governor’s Public Service Internship program, including myself. For years, then-Governor Pence had been a very vocal opponent of the EPA’s Clean Power actions, and he wasn’t known for supporting the environment. In the past, I would have avoided engaging with him. I probably would have skipped the reception, having thoughts like “it’s not worth my time” or “I couldn’t possibly have an impact.” That way of being would have been self-fulfilling, whether I decided to engage or not.
Based on my experience with Nick, I showed up embodying compassion and understanding. I asked him a question about the future of Indiana’s environmental leadership and, to my surprise, he asked for my opinion. I told him I was working towards graduate degrees in Public Policy and Environmental Science because I was committed to protecting human and environmental health. I shared about an Indiana program I was proud of that provides small businesses with free technical support in navigating complex environmental regulations, ensuring economic success and environmental health.
To the wild surprise of myself and my colleagues, he was inspired to give an impromptu speech to our entire class of interns on the beauty of Indiana’s natural resources and the importance of environmental stewardship at the highest levels of state government. It was the most pro-environment speech I’ve heard from Pence, delivered to a group of people who will likely be making important policy decisions in years to come.
A year later, then-Governor Pence was traveling the country, campaigning for Vice President alongside Donald Trump. After a mention of climate change in the first presidential debate, President Trump’s campaign manager issued a statement saying Trump “does not believe global warming is a man-made phenomenon.” During a CNN interview later that week, Vice President Pence was asked by Chris Cuomo about the Trump campaign’s position on global warming, and he responded:
“There’s no question that the activities that take place in this country and in countries around the world have some impact on the environment and some impact on climate.”
I was shocked by this declaration, which directly contradicted a core policy position of President Trump’s and GOP leadership. I can’t know whether our conversation at the intern reception produced any direct policy outcomes, or how much it influenced Vice President Pence’s personal beliefs. What I can say is that I am so profoundly grateful that I decided to show up that day and have a difficult conversation.