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Divided Colorado: A Sister And Brother Disagree On Climate Change

Ashley Jefcoat
Anna and Randy Cook get along well now, but the last year hasn't been easy. Anna submitted a question to Divided Colorado about climate change belief.

Anna Cook loves her older brother, but the last year hasn’t been easy on their relationship.

“We didn’t talk for a few weeks,” she says. “I yelled at my brother after finishing a meal at a restaurant because of how upset I was.”

Randy Cook is candid when he describes their differences.

“I was a Trump supporter and the rest of my family was not Trump supporters,” he says.

For this brother and sister from Denver, the election was divisive and difficult. One thing Anna, 25, didn’t fully understand was her brother’s view on climate change.

“I think it shouldn’t necessarily be a partisan issue,” she says. “I see a lot of strife associated with this, and the problem with that is that we’re not actually acting on this very pressing and threatening issue.”

It’s not that Randy, 26, doesn’t believe in climate change.

“I do believe that it’s real, but I believe it’s a very complicated issue,” he says. “Perhaps investing less into it today -- focusing on economic growth and increasing research and development into different sources of energy could be a more ideal method to receiving renewable and green sources of energy.”

Randy is also a bit skeptical. 

“I would like to do the labs -- like testing the actual gasses myself and see how they react to different wavelengths of light and see how much they’re able to take,” he says.

The experiments he’s describing are like the ones that have been done for more than 100 years by scientists who study the earth’s environment.

“CO2 absorbs infrared heat in certain wavelengths and those measurements were made first time -- published -- when Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States,” says Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. “Since that time, those measurements have been repeated by better and better instruments around the world.”

CO2, or carbon dioxide, has increased over time, scientists say, because of human activity. It’s a greenhouse gas that’s contributing to global warming.

Credit Courtesy of Scott Denning
According to Denning's website, he "takes special delight in engaging hostile audiences on the subject of climate change."

“We know precisely how the molecule wiggles and waggles, and what the quantum interactions between the electrons are that cause everyone one of these little absorption lines,” he says. “And there’s just no wiggle room around it -- CO2 absorbs heat, heat warms things up, so adding CO2 to the atmosphere will warm the climate.”

Denning says that most of the CO2 we see added to the atmosphere comes from humans -- mostly through burning coal, oil and gas, which, as he puts it, is “indirectly caused by us.”

When looking at the scientific community, Denning says it’s united, as far as he knows.

“My department is the biggest graduate department of atmospheric science in the United States ... We have 18 faculty, about 400 people work in my department -- and we couldn’t come up with somebody to take the other side of this,” he says.

But if the science is settled, why do so many Americans have the same doubts about the issue that Randy has? What about the people who don’t believe climate change has anything to do with humans?

Anthony Leiserowitz is an expert on that. He’s the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. The program studies how Americans think about climate change.

According to Leiserowitz and his colleagues, Americans fall into six broad categories, depending on what they believe about climate change. They call this the “Six Americas.”

They range from the “alarmed,” who are extremely concerned about climate change and believe it to be a pressing, urgent issue, to the “dismissive,” who, according to Leiserowitz, see it as a conspiracy.

“Many of whom basically flat-out tell us that they think it’s a big conspiracy, that it’s a hoax or scientists making up data, or a [United Nations] plot to take away American sovereignty,” he says.

Credit Yale/George Mason University
The Six Americas as defined by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications. Anna falls under the alarmed category, while Randy is with the majority of Americans under the concerned category.

The divide illuminates the differences between sister Anna and brother Randy. Anna’s beliefs place her firmly in the alarmed group. Randy falls into the “concerned” category.

“They think it’s happening and human caused and serious, but they tend to think of it as distant in time and space,” Leiserowitz says of those like Randy. “So the impacts won’t be felt for a generation or more, or that it’s about polar bears. And it may be in developing countries, but not us.”

There’s a strategy for talking to people who fall into the concerned category, he adds: stick to the facts.

“It’s about helping him understand that climate change is here and now that the impacts are already being felt across the country and that people in Colorado and across west and, in fact, every corner of the country are already seeing these impacts,” Leiserowitz says.

And there's just no wiggle room around it -- CO2 absorbs heat, heat warms things up, so adding CO2 to the atmosphere will warm the climate.

In Colorado, spring is arriving earlier in the Rockies -- which means that the iconic cutthroat trout is in danger from rainbow trout encroaching on their habitat. The Colorado River, which provides water for 40 million people, has been suffering from extremely low water levels since 2000 -- and it will continue to drop. Scientists say a third of that is because of rising temperatures. Nationally, the 2014 Audubon Climate report finds that nearly half of U.S. bird populations may be in danger because of “shrinking and shifting ranges” -- caused by climate change.

Whether you share news articles like the ones above, or talk more generally about the science, Leiserowitz says that “most fundamentally, we just need to talk about it.”

That’s easier said than done for many.

“At the Thanksgiving table, you don’t talk about religion, politics or sex. Well, climate change has kind of been added to that list,” Leiserowitz says.

Anna agrees -- almost verbatim.

“You know they say that at a party you shouldn’t discuss religion, politics -- I think sports is in there,” she says with a laugh. “I always thought that was an unfortunate thing. … If we’re afraid of making people upset, how will we ever understand other people?”

Randy values thoughtful talk, too.

“I really just enjoy discussion for the sake of the discussion,” he says. “It would be nice if we could gain insight into each other’s viewpoints. At the end of the day, if you don’t change your viewpoints, as long as you gave it a good listen to and were considerate about what they thought of the different situations -- that there’s a lot of good insight there for everyone.”

While Anna says that, “Randy and I have an understanding,” and they have “had to let it go,” things aren’t universally easy for their family.

“It would be nice to have these discussions with my grandparents,” Randy says. “With my mother it’s kind of a, ‘Don’t talk about it,’ sort of thing.”

But they’re both hopeful that others can learn something from their story.

“I think it’s important for us -- more than anything -- to emphasize that if you’re feeling contentious and stress with your family members, that you’re not alone,” Anna says. “All you can really do is try to listen anyway.”

Divided Colorado is a project of KUNC that seeks to understand the issues -- political and otherwise -- that divide Coloradans. Listeners are encouraged to submit their own questions for the other side online.