November 22, 2021

Questions Answered

Many thanks to the hundreds of readers who responded to our survey with thoughtful questions! We’re delightfully overwhelmed. For the next three days, we’ll be answering a select few that we think represent broader themes; today’s are climate change and Covid.

Climate Change

Ask a Conservative:

“Since conservatives (in my experience) tend to oppose methods of clean energy like solar, wind, etc, what is their plan to stop or at least lessen climate change?” - Oliver, California

Conservatives are generally quite supportive of nuclear power, which is safe and reliable. Another renewable option that has support from many conservatives is hydropower. Finally, it’s worth noting that conservatives are not opposed to solar/wind power on principle, but because they are seen as unreliable (the sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind doesn’t always blow). To the extent that improved storage technology increases reliability and costs continue to decrease, conservative support for solar/wind power will grow.

“Why do many conservatives not care about climate change (at least, I'm referring here to the many who recognize it is real but are still not concerned), when it seems like many of the risks posed by climate change are traditionally conservative issues such as immigration and national security, and many of the most realistic solutions are traditionally conservative, such as energy independence, nuclear power, and improving the clean/air water policies that were originally passed under Nixon?” - Jeremiah, Pennsylvania

It’s important to differentiate between those who “care” about climate change and those who support expensive mitigation efforts and/or question the efficacy of proposed policies. Even electric cars are not entirely green: battery production involves significant emissions, and the electricity used to charge them is often generated from fossil fuels.

Republicans are also much more skeptical about the effectiveness of international efforts to combat climate change, in large part due to distrust that the likes of China (currently the world’s largest emitter), India, and Russia will meaningfully reduce emissions. Only 23 percent of Republicans think efforts by the international community will be effective, compared to nearly two thirds of Democrats. It’s worth noting that according to the Climate Action Tracker, not a single country is currently on track to meet its commitments from the Paris climate conference.

68 percent of Americans are unwilling to pay $10 more a month to combat climate change. That said, concern about climate change is not necessarily required to reduce emissions. The Trump administration oversaw a decrease in carbon emissions, largely driven by economics. The US also achieved energy independence in 2019 for the first time since the 1950s. In addition, between 2005 and 2017 the US oversaw the largest emissions reduction of any country, largely due to increased use of natural gas. Majorities of Republicans favor policies such as planting trees and tax credits for carbon capture and storage. There also appears to be bipartisan support for increasing nuclear energy generation.

“When my relatives bemoan the weather, how do I mention climate change without starting an argument?” - Allison, Maryland

The best course of action before bringing up any sensitive topic is to ask yourself why you feel the urge to do so / what the end goal is. Please remember that people have been bemoaning the weather since the dawn of time, and climate change isn’t responsible for all bad weather. Are you simply looking for an excuse to bring up the topic? They may simply be making chit chat while watching the parade or cooking, not looking for a serious discussion.

If you feel strongly that you should discuss the topic with them, perhaps it’s best to set aside a time specifically for that. During the discussion (as with all sensitive topics), focus on explaining your concerns rather than attempting to convert or judge them, which is likely to make them defensive and less receptive to what you’re saying. Finally, the Living Room Conversations guide to climate change has thoughtful, open-ended questions you can ask.

Ask a Liberal:

“I am a conservative. How do I discuss climate change with a liberal? I believe climate change is a thing, but I vehemently disagree with the left’s approach and solutions to the issue. I believe in the power of nuclear energy and the responsible use of fossil fuels. How do I thoughtfully discuss this without being called a Nazi?” - Valerie, New York

It’s always best to start with points of agreement. You agree climate change is real. You support (clean) nuclear energy. You can note that we’re unlikely to drop fossil fuels overnight. You can also ask them what worries them most about climate change, which policies they think would be most effective in mitigating emissions, and how high a priority those policies should be for our federal, state, and/or local governments. No matter the issue, people want first and foremost to be heard. And it’s a lot easier to agree to disagree about the relative effectiveness of specific policies than the topic as a whole.

“If liberals are so against pipelines for environmental reasons why don’t they turn off the gas connection to their house?” - Kate, Texas

In order to make a meaningful difference, fossil fuels will have to be reduced on a societal level; a few people turning off their gas won’t change much. That’s especially true when just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global carbon emissions. Nor is it feasible to simply “turn off” the gas when the established infrastructure is based on it. Here’s a related example: take someone who wants to drive an electric car for environmental reasons, and supports government efforts to establish electric charging stations. It wouldn’t be hypocritical for such a person to wait to purchase an electric car until after those charging stations were installed. Until such time as greener infrastructure is installed, it’s simply not feasible to decouple entirely from fossil fuels.

“Nobody is talking about energy demand reduction relating to climate change. People are buying ever bigger homes, traveling more (at least pre-Covid), and buying more cars and endless amounts of plastic crap. The conversion to green energy sources and electric cars will help, but don't we need to also address the pervading consciousness that we can buy whatever we want whenever we want it?” - Ellie, Colorado

Broadly speaking, yes. Fighting climate change requires making small changes in many different areas of our lives: using public transportation whenever possible instead of driving, cutting down on our meat consumption, turning down the air conditioning/heat, flying less, etc. Here’s a test to calculate your own carbon footprint, split into categories.

We need to shift away from the idea that everything is disposable and dedicate ourselves more fully to sustainable living. Some even suggest rethinking capitalism itself: less “fast fashion” and constant returns, more reused and recycled items. That said, electricity, heat, and transportation  are the largest contributors to climate change, so it makes sense to focus on them. It’s always good to practice sustainability, but we need systemic changes first and foremost.


Ask a Conservative:

“How do I best approach COVID vaccines without them shutting me down and making me feel crazy?” - Samantha, Texas

“How can I convince aging parents the risks of getting COVID are higher than the risks of the vaccine?” - Meredith, New York

It’s important to acknowledge that this vaccine is in fact brand new. No one can possibly know if there are delayed or long-term effects, regardless of how many trials have been done, because the vaccine simply has not existed long enough. Yes, the odds are that it’s perfectly safe for most people, but it’s not outlandish to worry that it may not be. It would not be the first time that “safe” medical treatments turned out to be unsafe down the line, whether because the risks were genuinely unknown or because they were covered up. There are examples of this with both vaccines and other drugs.

Evidence suggests that getting vaccinated only serves to protect the individual receiving it; it doesn’t make one significantly less likely to transmit the virus. Thus the argument that unvaccinated people are harming others does not hold water. Moreover, the vaccines are extremely effective at preventing serious illness/death; so those refusing vaccines are only risking their own health, not the health of those who are vaccinated. If the government can mandate vaccinations in the name of public health or the greater good, what else can it mandate? Who do you trust to make those determinations?

​​I myself have been vaccinated. However, I only did it to make my wife happy and so I could stop wearing a mask at work. One reason I had no desire to get the vaccine is that I don’t think I need it. I am a young, healthy person, and I already had Covid. It wasn’t a big deal for me; the worst part was a few restless nights. Another reason is noncompliance for its own sake. I believe it should be up to each individual whether to be vaccinated, and I resent attempts by some to make that decision for others. ​

You accept a certain amount of risk by going out in public. You risk getting sick. You risk being hit by a car. You risk a crazy person harming you. We do take some steps to prevent these things, but they do happen, and they always will unless we go to extremes to prevent them that unduly infringe on personal liberty. If you are that afraid of getting Covid from an unvaccinated person, you are free to stay home. You are free to get vaccinated, wear a mask, or whatever else makes you feel safe. Public spaces belong to all of us, and feeling unsafe or uncomfortable does not entitle you to take control of public spaces and make medical decisions for others.

“Why would an informed smart person believe that Ivermectin is a wise treatment for Covid19?” - Paul, Tennessee

As with all new viruses, we’re constantly learning more about Covid, largely through trial and error. Dr. Fauci initially advised against wearing masks, then later changed his mind. We spent months hoarding Lysol and excessively cleaning surfaces, which was likely not necessary. Regarding ivermectin specifically, there were several studies suggesting it may be effective at treating Covid. While other studies have not borne this out, research remains ongoing. One hypothesis based on existing studies is that ivermectin may be useful in patients with intestinal worms, which can be exacerbated by common Covid treatments. While it’s inadvisable to take ivermectin instead of other more promising treatments, it’s generally quite safe if taken properly. Finally, here’s our coverage of ivermectin.

“I grew up in a very conservative household but would describe myself as moderate in adulthood. My dad refers to Covid as a ‘scamdemic’ even though he knows folks personally who have died from it, and refuses to take any precautions, stating that it’s a matter of ‘principle.’ We’re about to stay in a cabin with extended family for Thanksgiving, including my 92-year-old grandmother who is understandably cautious. They’re asking that unvaccinated family members get a rapid test before visiting, which doesn’t seem like a big ask, but dad has already expressed that he won’t even do that. He has said he just won’t come with us. Is there any convincing him if he views this as a moral hill that he must die on? - Lauren, Georgia

It’s unfortunate that the virus has become so politicized. It may help to remind your father that the vaccine was a major triumph for the Trump administration. Trump himself was vaccinated, despite having recovered from Covid, and Fox News requires all employees to be vaccinated or tested daily. While we can’t wholly change the narrative, it may be worthwhile to show your father this Breitbart article suggesting that some prominent liberals are using reverse psychology to keep conservatives unvaccinated. And here’s a conversation guide from Living Room Conversations that may be useful.

Finally, it may be that taking the politics and science out of it and simply asking him to take a rapid test before visiting as a favor to you is the path of least resistance, in the sense that you’re not asking him to change his beliefs. Acknowledge and affirm his views by saying, “we know how strongly you feel about this, and we respect your convictions. But it would mean a great deal to us if you ____.” You can also try to lighten the mood by saying “you can tell us all the reasons you think it’s unnecessary afterwards, and we’ll pay attention! But please do us this favor.”

Ask a Liberal:

“If we needed a vaccine so bad for Covid why didn’t we use a trusted and tested type of vaccine instead of a new method that had never been used successfully before?” - Deb

All the available evidence indicates that the vaccines are quite safe. In the US alone, we’ve administered 442 million doses. While some side effects have been noted, they are quite rare. For example, the chances of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine causing a blood clot in women between 18 and 49 years old appears to be 7 in a million. The sheer number of doses administered, largely without incident, is good evidence that the vaccines really are safe. While it’s true that the risks of Covid are relatively small for certain groups, the risks from vaccines are even lower. In fact, many of the side effects of the vaccine are also prevalent (and in fact worse) for those who contract Covid.

The Covid vaccines are made from mRNA because such vaccines can be developed and produced more quickly than traditional vaccines. Instead of months of testing, potential mRNA vaccines can be developed in days based on the virus’s RNA. But that doesn’t make them unsafe. Unlike many existing vaccines, which contain dead (or even alive but weakened) versions of a disease, mRNA vaccines contain only one harmless part of the virus (the spike protein). Therefore, there’s no chance that patients might become sick with Covid from the vaccine itself. The mRNA from the vaccine also breaks down in a few days, so there’s little danger of long-term dangers. mRNA vaccines are “new” in that they haven't been in widespread use until now, but development of mRNA based vaccines has been ongoing for decades.

“What does the science say about the effectiveness of masks against Covid?” - Anonymous

Despite initial mixed messages, the scientific community now overwhelmingly agrees that masks are effective. A large-scale study in Bangladesh found that villages with more widespread mask use saw fewer symptomatic cases of Covid; other studies also show that masks reduce transmission. This is especially important given that the even vaccinated individuals with the Delta variant remain quite contagious.

“Why, in light of vaccines, improved therapies and medical treatment experience, has the Covid 19 mortality rate increased?  It is higher now than in Nov 20-Feb 21, and it makes no sense that enhanced immunity with vaccines, millions of others with natural immunity, and continued masking, social distancing and enhanced hygienic practices would result in more deaths?” - Barbara

The number of deaths in the US is actually below its high point last winter. It’s true that data show more deaths in 2021 than in 2020, but that includes a substantial number of (pre-vaccine) deaths in January, plus the fact that the virus did not start circulating until several months into 2020.

Those who have died from Covid recently have been overwhelmingly unvaccinated. Most states have also relaxed mitigation efforts (for example, only six states currently require masks indoors for everyone), and the Delta variant is much more contagious than the original virus. In other words, the current deaths are almost entirely concentrated among unvaccinated people who are not masking or distancing, driven by a more contagious variant. If more people got vaccinated, rates would drop (and if vaccination rates were lower, we’d be seeing even more deaths now).

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