For an ordinary individual who works in a relatively noncontroversial field, holiday parties and other social events can be relatively carefree and fun occasions.
But for those who work in a climate science-related discipline, these days such events are more like a series of conversational minefields. Step on one, and you'll be stuck arguing about the significance of uncertainties in the surface temperature record with your uncle who thinks Glenn Beck is not only the wisest person on the planet, but also the funniest, and who dismisses global warming by comparing it to the Y2K scare.
Likely reflecting the absurdly polarized state of climate politics, I've found myself in increasingly awkward situations at parties recently - accosted by relatives, friends, acquaintances and total strangers about climate science and policy. I don't know what it is about climate change that makes people want to interrogate me as if I were the sole keeper of all climate knowledge in the world, and am personally scheming to make the globe warmer.
People: I am not Gargamel, the villain from the Smurfs who came up with a weather-controlling device (although that was my favorite episode).
I don't want to discourage folks from being curious about climate change. But in the spirit of enjoying the holiday season, I'm considering telling new people I meet on the party circuit that I'm in the importing/exporting business (extra points for anyone that can guess what TV show that one is from), just to avoid uncomfortable, heated conversations about climate change.
To help those of you who may be in similar predicaments, here's a list of my most dreaded, most frustrating, and most welcome climate-related questions to be asked at a social gathering (holiday or otherwise), and two ways to respond to them. One is the way I actually respond. The other is the way I wish I could respond if I weren't worried about social norms and basic human decency.
Most dreaded, and most frequently asked, question: "So, do you believe in global warming?"
My typical answer: "It's not a matter of 'belief,' but rather an examination of empirical evidence. The vast preponderance of data indicates that the world is warming rapidly, and the fingerprints of manmade greenhouse gas emissions have been found all over this warming trend. Data from the land, air and sea all show a warming world, with major changes already taking place in biological systems and landscapes, from melting Arctic sea ice to glacial retreat in Glacier National Park."
What I wish I could say: "I 'believe' that climate change is not a matter of personal belief, but rather of scientific evidence and theory, developed over hundreds of years of following the scientific method. After all, rising thermometers don't care about my beliefs, nor do melting glaciers and sea ice. They are facts, whether I choose to believe in them or not."
Most frustrating question I've received: "I thought those climategate emails showed that global warming was just a conspiracy put forth by scheming scientists?"
My typical answer: "No, those stolen emails showed that climate scientists are human beings and were guilty of bad-mouthing those who don't believe that burning fossil fuels like coal and oil are warming the planet. The scientists may have deleted some emails they shouldn't have, but the messages didn't disprove the temperature record or the long-held theory that greenhouse gases are a key regulator of the climate system. They did, however, cause a PR disaster for mainstream climate scientists."
What I wish I could say: "No, climate change is still for realz. I bet you didn't even read those emails anyway. What's your email password, by the way? I bet I could selectively steal and release a trove of emails from your account that would implicate you in all sorts of wrongdoing. In fact, while we've been talking, that's exactly what I did. Oh man. This doesn't look good for you at all. Good luck. You're going to need it."
Most welcome question(s): "I hear so many conflicting things about climate change. I can't make sense of it all. Are we really going to be screwed by the year 2100? And where can I find reliable information about it?"
My typical answer - which is also what I wish I could say:"Yeah, this is a subject that can be very confusing, especially if you're just reading a couple of stories here and there about the latest climate news and research. No, we're not necessarily going to be 'screwed' by 2100, but the vast majority of climate scientists say that the world is likely to be much warmer by then, unless dramatic emissions cuts are undertaken very soon."
"This won't cause a global apocalypse or anything, but it will require a lot of planning for how we'll adapt our coastlines, infrastructure, and lifestyle to be more resilient to rising sea levels, altered weather patterns, and more frequent heat waves and precipitation extremes. I'd recommend first reading up on climate science from a reliable, nonpartisan source: such as the book 'Climate Change: Picturing the Science,' or 'The Discovery of Global Warming,' before delving into the weeds on the topic."
I'm curious to find out what your most frequent climate change questions are - either those asked of you, or that you ask others. I'll do my best to try and answer them, with a bare minimum of sarcasm, or direct you to another person who can do so better than I can.
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.