Q&A with “China Lake” author Barret Baumgart
By Breene Murphy
With a Republican House, Republican Senate, and a Republican president, the odds are pretty good that you, like me, work with a Republican representative. For my representative and me, that means addressing national security.
So I read Barret Baumgart’s newly released book “China Lake: A Journey into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe,” which is about his own journey to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake to find out just what the military is working on to fight climate change.
I tracked down Baumgart, and he agreed to an email exchange. Like the book, Baumgart’s writing is quick and at times shocking. Our interview explores the complicated relationship between the military, climate change, and the political right, as well as his approach to writing the book. To read the unedited conversation, head over to the CCL Community here, and to dive much deeper into these topics, check out his book.
Breene Murphy, CCL: Facts play a tricky role in your book. How did you balance that with the relationships between you and your interviewees?
Barret Baumgart: I felt like it wasn’t my job to correct people’s flawed beliefs. The writing of the book was in some ways like documentary film-making—you let someone go on talking for a while and then, as the writer or director, you don’t have to refute them, you just cut and observe an image or fact in conflict with what they’re saying. You don’t have to explicitly tell the reader that you think so-and-so is wrong.
I guess that doesn’t help much though when it comes to persuading your climate-denying Congressman. There’s this phenomenon in psychology called “confirmation bias” which says, basically, that people are more inclined to believe information that confirms their existing beliefs. And further, that you might systematically refute someone’s entire belief system and end up only strengthening it for them. How do you change people’s minds? I’m not sure.
Perhaps one strategy for conversing with climate deniers is to describe SRM, or solar geoengineering, which many still haven’t heard of, in the most stark and dire terms. Describe it as a truly frightening inevitability. Tell them that they’re researching this at Harvard. It isn’t bullshit. Then ask, would you rather go through this chemotherapy or start jogging seriously? Mitigate. Keep the earth in shape. Cut emissions. It will be much easier, much less painful and risky this way.
BM: I find this idea of asking questions like a documentary filmmaker particularly interesting. What is that process is like?
BB: Important people get asked a lot of questions. You don’t want to bore them by forcing them to rehash previous opinions, the same statements they’ve already given to someone more well-known, more intelligent, and better looking than you… That said, you also don’t want to throw someone off—so start with comfortable questions and build a stable rapport. Prior to an interview, I usually write out about fifteen questions which I memorize. Depending on the flow of the conversation I might ask all of them or none. I interviewed Ken Caldeira at Stanford, and he has this amazing quote: “For most, researching ‘geoengineering’ is an expression of despair at the fact that others are unwilling to do the hard work of reducing emissions.” I wanted to ask him about that but I never did. In any case, you have to feel it out.
I doubt Werner Herzog knows what he’s asking long before he asks it, yet he has this amazing knack for listening, seeing into his subject, and asking strange questions that often yield astonishing answers.
BM: Wow, that Herzog interview is amazing! I’ll have to work on his “Squirrel Cuteness” strategy.
You mentioned asking questions that they haven’t heard time and again—obviously that takes a certain level of education—but you’re right that defense, while complex, is very persuasive for some leaders.
BB: It seems madness to me if the people charged with ensuring your national security describe something as a dangerous reality, a “threat multiplier,” and your response is “Naw, we’re good, we don’t worry about that.” There’s serious cognitive dissonance on the right where national security, sovereignty, borders are sacred, inviolable principles that Republicans bend over to protect, but then you mention climate change and suddenly the Pentagon is pursuing some economically ruinous far-left liberal delusion. Rear Admiral David Titley has put it nicely: “The ice doesn’t care about politics, it just melts.” The longer we procrastinate, the deeper the cuts, economically and existentially. To occupy the cold mindset of the Pentagon: purely detached rational self-interest dictates action.
BM: Rear Admiral Titley is actually on CCL’s Advisory Board! It was fun for me to read about him to balance out your despairing view of protest activism.
BB: I find protest on the one hand inspiring, necessary, powerful, yet it can be depressing and self-serving—often it’s a sterilized performative gesture. A weekend sport. It only makes a dent not when the antifa kids start throwing rocks at windows but when the numbers are overwhelming, so much so that the democratic mass cannot be ignored. So far we haven’t seen that with climate.
I was pretty damn pessimistic about the future while writing the book. I didn’t think we’d sign Paris. When we did, and when Hillary adopted some much more strict language about climate and energy, for a while there I was optimistic, and I surprised myself. Of course, with the shock of Trump’s victory, I felt like a dupe… Hillary’s website is still up vowing to make America “the clean energy superpower of the 21st century.” God, that has be one of the most lonely and ghostly corners of the web. You can still click the donate button. Anyway, the recent marches were necessary, but they’re insufficient.
BM: I would agree that the marches aren’t enough. Going back to your findings on confirmation bias, the crucial insight CCL shares is the way to change people’s minds is through relationships. You might find this quieter form of activism valuable and it maybe give you a little hope.
So my last question is an invitation: would you like to come to one of our meetings?
BB: A little hope would be a good thing! Agreed, good old fashioned relationships and conversations that follow from them are probably the best way to change minds. Takes a long time though. I’m not sure the planet has that many collective hours left! Hopefully I’m wrong. Where are your offices? Do you have free coffee?