Andy Revkin
“This wind is extremist!”

Andy Revkin has been doing such great stuff on his Dot Earth climate blog, I wanted to ignore the story he published yesterday in the NYT: “Challenges to Both Left and Right on Global Warming.” Pretend it never happened.

But I can’t. It’s just … awful.

The preposterous claim at the center of the piece is that Newt Gingrich, Bjorn Lomborg, and Shellenberger & Nordhaus represent the "pragmatic center on climate and energy" — they are the "moderates," or if you prefer, the "environmental centrists."

Yes, really. That’s what it says.

We’ve been through this before. A while back, Revkin published a similarly awful piece called "Middle Stance Emerging in Debate Over Climate." He received a tsunami of justified criticism in response, but of course, it’s in the nature of these wanky "I’m the reasonable middle" pieces that any criticism can be interpreted as attacks from "the extremes." It’s self-insulating, and if the career of David Broder is any indication, a pundit can stay cozy in there for a long, long time. I hope Revkin does not aspire to be the climate Broder.

I wrote a response to his previous piece called "High Broderism reaches the global warming debate," and everything I said there applies just as well to this piece. To review:

The alleged "centrists" do not share a common assessment of the severity of the problem. Gingrich thinks it’s a real problem, but we can get by with targeted tax credits and tax breaks here and there. Lomborg thinks it’s a mild problem that may or may not become a severe problem, one that doesn’t merit constraining our fossil fuel use or making economic sacrifices.

S&N think global warming is an existential threat, a generational challenge that requires a societal mobilization along the lines of the Apollo Project. In this they reflect the mainstream climate policy position, as represented in the IPCC, that climate change is already costing millions and killing thousands and that urgent action to slow the rise of emissions is both possible and warranted.

The alleged "centrists" do not share a common policy prescription. All of them favor greater investment in energy R&D, but then, so does everyone. That is the mainstream position.

On the subject of regulation, either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, Gingrich and Lomborg push the conservative party line: regulations hurt the economy and don’t help the climate. S&N, despite their rhetorical focus, favor regulation of carbon.

The mainstream climate policy view is that a price on carbon is the crucial first step in constraining emissions. S&N are within that mainstream, along with every green advocacy group; Gingrich and Lomborg are outside it, on a fringe largely populated by movement conservatives and right-wing political operatives.

So if people in the alleged "pragmatic center on climate and energy" share neither an assessment of the problem nor a proposed solution, what do they share? What lumps S&N in with Gingrich and Lomborg in the "middle," with everyone else at the "extremes"?

The answer is twofold:

They criticize their own side. If you want national media attention, bash your allies. It’s practically a Law of Media Physics. Nothing gets the national press tumescent like fratricide. Lomborg and Gingrich take Republicans to task for denying the reality of climate change. S&N take enviros to task for being too gloomy.

Note, for one thing, that the sin of gloomy rhetoric about a problem every responsible scientist acknowledges is potentially catastrophic is hardly parallel to the sin of refusing to believe settled mainstream science on the basis of crazed conspiracy theories and political ideology. These are hardly equivalent charges.

Note also that greens are not, in fact, monochromatically gloomy, certainly not these days, and regardless, they’ve been pushing for increased energy R&D for decades. So while Gingrich and Lomborg’s critique of the right is correct, and devastating, S&N’s is both shallow and incorrect.

They loudly disavow "extremism," where "extreme" means impassioned and urgent, and lay claim to the mantle of "reasonable," where "reasonable" means soothing and calm.

This has nothing to do with the content of anyone’s views — most everyone agrees climate change is a big problem and we need to get started addressing it immediately. It’s about tone. If criticizing one’s own is media crack, being "shrill" is media repellant. Caring too much, showing genuine anger or frustration, demanding action beyond what’s currently politically possible — these are the actions of extremists or [shudder] "the bloggers." Self-appointed Reasonable People define themselves in opposition to ranting and raving Dirty Hippie strawmen. "We’re not like them. We don’t raise our voices."

Anyway, sorry for such a long post, but I want to make it crystal clear that the "centrism" here is entirely about gesture, tone, and affect. It’s got nothing to do with substance. S&N’s policy views are banal and simplistic. Gingrich and Lomborg’s are on the conservative fringe.

All they have in common is a talent for self-promotion, a skill in using the "pox on both their houses" dog whistle to attract media hounds. They drop all the right buzzwords, strike all the right poses, sprinkle the spice of centrism on policy dog food, and fool reporters like Revkin into eating it over and over again.