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What I Learned from “An Open Letter”

In the midst of Superstorm Sandy, I wrote a blog post entitled "An Open Letter to My Friends Who Are Climate Skeptics." After conversations with several of my friends, I have come to realize that this blog post was not a helpful contribution to the dialogue, and actually may have done more harm than good. I’d like to explain to you why, and what I’ve learned from this experience.

In my open letter, I was trying to express the frustration that I felt, and that I know other climate activists feel, about climate skepticism. I was trying to put into words my own cognitive dissonance between the scientists and environmental professionals – the leaders in my professional field – who have taught me that climate change is one of the most challenging issues of our time, and my intelligent, educated, good-hearted, environmentally-concerned friends and family members who argue that it is just not so clear.

As it turned out, an open letter was a lousy way to express that frustration. The few of my “climate-skeptical” friends who read it found it offensive. Part of that was because an open letter is just not a good strategy for having someone actually agree with you. As one friend pointed out, I had taken an argument with individuals into a public forum and turned those individuals into a “straw man” intended for attack, grandstanding in public while not being willing to entertain debate. Another friend told me that the writing, full of earnest passion, was like a proselytizer trying to convince someone to come to a new religion. The proselytizer means well, but they are only going to push their friends away. Bottom line, these intelligent people were insulted because I had implied they were in denial, when they actually felt quite informed. They told me I was patronizing.

To be sure, the open letter was a failure on many levels. Please, do not follow my example and do anything similar in your community.

I would also like to admit, to my great sadness, that I have no idea how to bridge the huge chasm between those who are working to address climate issues and those who think climate change is not happening or is not caused by human beings.

If you have been convinced by the science, perhaps you feel – like I do – that there is almost nothing more important for our long-term future than figuring out how to get our energy and climate challenges addressed. Personally, I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life to educating people to protect the environment. I’ve spent a lot of that time avoiding the topic of climate change because it feels too controversial. But I’ve come to see, over and over again, that it’s the elephant in the room.

One of my brilliant and passionate environmentalist friends, who doubts the climate science, recently encouraged me to avoid the topic of climate change because it’s too inflammatory and divisive, and to focus instead on things we can all agree on. For years I’ve taken this approach by speaking about a “sustainable future” – which of course includes a sustainable climate, but doesn’t say so directly. But as one of my climate activist friends commented to me, “How can we solve a problem that we can’t name?” This is the conundrum I’ve been struggling with over the last month. I just don’t know, anymore, if we can build that sustainable future if we don’t acknowledge that climate change is a problem.

The postings I wrote around Superstorm Sandy were my attempt to speak honestly about my concerns about climate change. They were probably the boldest statements I’ve made to date on the topic. For me, they were a step forward in my willingness to be honest about how important and urgent I feel this issue is.

What I’ve realized is that if I am going to speak out about an issue like this, I might get pushback. I have seen this across the internet, so I know it isn’t personal. People might comment by telling me I’m wrong, or make assumptions that I’ve said things that I haven’t, or question what I’ve said or what I have implied. They might try to engage me in public debate. In the end, whether or not I’m good at arguing this point does not determine whether or not the climate is changing. So it doesn’t matter who wins or loses that particular fight, which is why I’m not interested in having it. But by posting a blog that attacked, but didn’t allow for debate, I only made things worse. I made my friends take a punch without giving them the opportunity to respond.

For me, this has been a heart-wrenching experience. I’m used to looking for common ground. However flawed, my blog post was ultimately about trying to find a way to bridge the chasm between my friends who are skeptical and my friends who are activists. It didn’t work. It caused damage in the process. I am heartbroken about that damage, actually.

One thing is for sure: I’m never planning to post an open letter like that again. Still, I don’t want to go back to an earlier place, where I hide what matters most to me so that no one will ever challenge what I say or get upset with me. I am committed to speaking what I understand to be the truth. That includes my deepest understandings of what the Torah teaches about protecting the environment, and it also includes my best understanding of the science on the environmental challenges we're facing.

I’m going to strive to do that with wisdom and strategy, and without hurting people. And, if I do accidentally hurt people, I’m going to do my best to make things right — while still being true to myself.

Today is the last day that I'm writing as a "Jewish youth." Tomorrow I enter a new generational box in the Jewish community. I have so many wishes for the coming year, but here is one based on this experience: I pray that I'll increase in wisdom as I continue to grow, and that we will all have the opportunity to learn from one another, for many more healthy years in the future.

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