Citizens' Climate Lobby Interview with Barret Baumgart, author of China Lake.
Republican House, Republican Senate, Republican President… So the odds are pretty good that you, like me, work with a Republican representative.
From everything we’ve learned from Citizens’ Climate Lobby, that means starting with our shared values. For my representative and I, that means addressing innovation and national security. And frankly, I needed to better understand the implications of climate change from a military, innovation, and national security perspective.
So it was a perfect time for me to read Barret Baumgart’s newly released book China Lake: A Journey into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe.
Barret’s story 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. One of two ways civilians are allowed on base is by a Native American Petroglyph tour, and Baumgart signs up to go with his mom (she is in turns hilarious and heartbreaking). Desperate to find answers, Baumgart interviews military personnel on China Lake’s past weather modification programs and potential research into climate engineering schemes like solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Later, still unsatisfied, he travels to the Pentagon to learn about the navy’s plans to “Go Green” by deploying alternative sources of energy.
After finishing the book, I tracked down Baumgart, and he agreed to an email exchange about the book and its making. Like the book, Baumgart’s writing is quick, intelligent, and at times shocking. But the part that I really appreciated is how he can make complex and fascinating military issues simpler to understand. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Breene Murphy, CCL: Whether it's the science of climate change, the military's potential geoengineering capability, or just your mom's new age beliefs, facts play a tricky role in your book. How did you handle sorting through misinformation and did that have a practical effect on the relationships between you and your interviewees?
Barret Baumgart: Tough question. Yeah, there's definitely a lot of uncertainty running throughout the book. Part of the pleasure and challenge of writing the thing was that I got to find out what I actually believed while I went along. The only thing I really took for granted when I began writing was the reality of climate science—everything after that was open to inquiry. After some research I found, for example, that I wasn’t particularly persuaded intellectually by the chemtrail conspiracy (big surprise, I know) nor was I too comfortable culturally with the appropriation in some New Age religion. When interviewing people, however, it wasn’t my job to correct people’s flawed beliefs, their “bad” ideas, etc. 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. The juxtaposition speaks for itself. You don’t have to explicitly tell the reader that you think so-and-so is wrong.
I’m afraid this doesn’t help you very much when it comes to persuading your climate denying Congressman that climate change is real. One thing I have learned throughout the course of the book is that it’s incredibly difficult, sometimes actually impossible, to change people’s minds. 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. I think my goal in writing China Lake was less to persuade anyone of any particular fact and more to provide a complex and variegated picture of where we stand right now as a country, and more broadly, as a species. My goal was more art than argument.
That said, I did hope that the book might inspire some real climate action. There’s no uncertainty that climate change is happening and that human activity is the cause. What is uncertain, however, is how bad the effects of climate change will be. This uncertainty has everything to do with our determination to fight the root cause of warming and nothing to do with any uncertainty about the science. This is to say nothing about the uncertainty that surrounds solar geoengineering, which sadly appears more likely each day. Perhaps that’s one strategy for conversing with climate deniers. Cut to the chase. Project ahead. Describe SRM, 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: You might guess this, but we are very familiar with the difficulty of discussing climate change with some (not all) Republicans. I find this idea of asking questions like a documentary filmmaker particularly interesting. It seems you're trying to develop trust with your interviewee, and so I'm curious what that process is like, is there a series of questions you use, and if you have good questions and bad questions?
BB: It depends on the type of interview—for a book or film, some interviews just happen in the field when you're wandering around digging, doing research or reporting somewhere. The kind of interview you're talking about, I usually go in pretty well prepped if I can. That involves reading as much as I can about the person I'm going to be talking with. Read all their past interviews, as much of their published work as you can muster, and ditto with everything written about them. 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 yes, ease in, start with comfortable questions, and build a stable rapport. Prior to an interview, I usually write out about fifteen questions which I try to memorize. Depending on the flow of the conversation I might ask all of them or none. I interviewed Ken Caldeira at Stanford for the book, 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 have questions ready that range from the simple and impersonal to more complex and prying. Obviously this is only one strategy. The goal is to have a meaningful conversation. I doubt Werner Herzog knows what he's asking long before he asks it, yet he has this amazing knack for seeing into his subject and asking strange questions that often yield astonishing answers. A narrative film or book needs these kind of surprises to keep the audience engaged I guess. What's it like lobbying someone in Congress? Can you ever get them to open up and talk about how cute the squirrels are on the capitol grounds?
BM: Wow, that Herzog interview is amazing! Actually I have used the "Squirrel Cuteness" strategy, but just not for the literal squirrels. Rohrabacher and I are both surfers, so I've asked him about surfing in D.C. (Though he gave me a rehearsed answer on that front: "At home, I ride waves, but in D.C. I make waves"). Where I really saw the personal side of him was asking about his daughter, who had just survived cancer treatments. How can you not feel for someone who has gone through that?
I want to hone in on something you mentioned about asking good questions, because your response is actually the heart why I read your book. You mentioned asking questions that they haven't repeated over and over again, and that takes a certain level of education. For many Republicans the one aspect of government they deeply care about is the military. If I better understand how our military thinks about climate change, what they see as the implications, what they think we can or need to do to address it, then maybe I can have a fuller, more meaningful conversation with my member of Congress. So I'm curious, even though you provided the poignant anecdotes of your dad and you bonding over weather, you left out when you found out about China Lake, and how you found out about Solar Radiation Management. What made you decide to investigate further?
BB: Rohrabacher sounds like a slick dude.
Yeah, I mean regarding the military, the fact that Pentagon cares about climate change should give any lawmaker serious pause. There's a really great quote in the book from Chuck Hagel that talks about the Pentagon's supposed more realistic look at the world. DoD doesn't joke around (minus the Great Green Fleet). It seems madness to me if the people charged with ensuring your national security are describing something as a "threat multiplier" and your response is "Naw... we're good, we don't worry about that." There's some serious cognitive dissonance on the right where, you know, national security, sovereignty, borders, these are sacred inviolable principles that Republicans are happy to bend over to protect but then you mention climate change and suddenly the Pentagon is pursuing some far-left liberal agenda. Rear Admiral David Titley has put it nicely, "The ice doesn't care about politics, it just melts." Viewing climate change action through the prism of the Pentagon is confusing and weird—they pollute more GHGs than any other single entity on earth—but it makes for a poignant entry to discussion with someone who is unwilling to look at the realities of science.
How did I find out about China Lake? Well my mind's always been immersed in the geography of California, especially the eastern Sierra Nevada and the Mojave desert. It's a place of extremes that has fascinated me since I was a kid and I've spent a lot of time hiking, backpacking, and just driving around exploring. On many trips, I was skirting around NAWS China Lake without knowing anything about it. When I learned that China Lake had this insane concentration of ancient Native American rock art, the irony that this was a place, on the one hand, dedicated to preserving the relics of past humans while at the same time testing weapons to kill them in the present, this irony sort of struck me as disturbing and amazing.
The book began when I realized the rainmaking connection. That sort of blew my mind. Nobody had connected the two before. The military "perfected" a rainmaking technology called cloud-seeding—later weaponized during the Vietnam War—at China Lake and the site of the base was also, very likely, the central pilgrimage point for rainmaking shamans throughout the Great Basin for thousands of years. There's good evidence that the bighorn sheep petroglyphs at China Lake were an attempt to make rain. Bighorns, possibly in the millions, cover a handful of canyons in China Lake's Coso Range. The art is sacred to the local tribes and it’s National Historic Landmark. To make it all even stranger, this all happened right outside Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. I started reading about solar radiation management, or solar geoengineering, after I learned about cloud-seeding. I thought that if we've attempted to modify the weather than surely we're working on controlling climate. Turned out that a small circle of scientists had been talking seriously about solar geoengineering for nearly a decade.
My research into weather and climate modification led quickly to dozens of websites dedicated to the chemtrail conspiracy theory. There's a fascinating sub-world of people that are convinced the US government has already begun to geoengineer the planet. They use chemtails to account for every ill in the world and their personal lives. I envy their certainty.
BM: Glad you brought up Rear Admiral Titley, as he is actually on CCL's Advisory Board, so it was really fun for me to read about him. He has really lended us credibility with the Republican communities. Sharing the Republican viewpoint is a big reason why we've seen the House Climate Solutions Caucus bloom to 38 members, 19 of whom are Republicans. Like you said, most people do take what the Pentagon says very seriously.
But I haven't spoken to Congressional Representatives about possible geoengineering solutions and what that could mean. It's pretty clear that spraying sulfur in the air would cause respiratory deaths, but potentially whiting out the sky seems like we'd be willfully placing ourselves in some apocalyptic time. It's really hard to fathom.
What's strange to me is that chemtrail believers don't believe in climate change (though they might say the reverse). Solar Radiation Management appears as close to an actual chemtrail as anything I've heard. Maybe the razor thin line between understanding climate change and believing in chemtrail conspiracy is in personal accountability: believing that we—all of us Americans—are part of the problem and not some "evil other"?
And now we're right back where we started: confirmation bias, facts, and what to do now.
You write pretty despairingly about protest activism—which is something that most climate activists feel from time to time—so what do you think about the recent spate of protests? What have you been doing lately with this newer, deeper knowledge?
BB: That's rad you guys work with Titley. He's a real G. Regarding the chemtrail stuff, yeah, there's a paragraph in the book about that. It's easier for some people to imagine a conspiracy, that some nefarious group is running things, rather than this huge collective action problem that we all play a part in.
I do write somewhat despairingly about protest activism. A recent LARB review noted this as well. I think the book speaks pretty well to my feelings regarding activism: they're mixed. I find protest on the one hand inspiring, necessary, powerful, yet also depressing and self-serving—often it's a sterilized performative gesture. In America, for the most part, it has been sanitized, scrubbed clean, and assimilated into routine—and therefore forgettable—political action. I think 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. I don't think we've seen this yet with our generation and that’s by design.
I'll say, 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. Anyways, the recent marches are necessary but they're insufficient. Rational people need to communicate visibly en masse their opposition to pigheaded policy. But unfortunately that's not enough. My opinion? One idea? Outside regular political action, we need to find ways, culturally, to combat the influence of Christian fundamentalism in America. Folks on the evangelical right might as individuals be great people, compassionate and sensible in their daily dealings, but as a collective unit they produce more harm than any other political interest group. It is not a coincidence that America is the most religious western democracy and also the least humane one on nearly every issue—from climate to health care, gender roles, abortion, wealth inequality, mass incarceration, gay rights, the death penalty, etc. etc. on and on. I'm sure that any organized attempt to undermine or erode religion in this country would only achieve the opposite end—"the more you refute the more you affirm" (here we are back on confirmation bias). Nonetheless, I think quality of life in this country would improve markedly if we had more atheists, or even Satanists for that matter.
Sorry, I'm ranting. What have I been doing? Continuing to follow the advance of geoengineering into the scientific mainstream and the policy world. I plan to continue writing about the topic, unfortunately. I've also been doing research for a new book that has some substantial tie-ins to China Lake. Been drumming too in an experimental black metal band called Wreche. Our debut released in May.
BM: I would agree that the marches are insufficient, even if the numbers are huge. Going back to your findings on confirmation bias, that's one insight in the whole discipline of behavioral economics, which also shares with us the solutions: the way to change people's minds is through relationships. And that's what CCL's about, and why I believe that CCL will make—has already made—a real difference. We have Christian leaders, business leaders, Republican leaders that are on board. No Satanists as I know, but I really like their number one tenet: “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.” That was a total surprise for me. Which is in keeping with you and your book, full of surprises.
So my last question is an invitation: would you like to come to one of our meetings sometime? I think you'd find this quieter form of activism valuable as you follow policy and maybe give you a little hope in the process.
BB: 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?