Churchill, not Chamberlain
Why are we letting pro-fossil fuel bozos hijack the only forum that environmentalists and climate-change activists have for wrestling with the daunting task of transforming America?
I posted a few practical suggestions in response to David’s question, “Should we be rebutting the skeptics?” I’m going to restate one proposal — to adopt a Craigslist-type policy allowing Grist readers to flag inappropriate posts.
Gristmill is a forum for conversation and debate between climate activists. Those who are skeptical of our world-saving aims are free to express their views on any of the many sites devoted to challenging climate science; this is not the place. (As a sidebar, we need a better term than “skeptic.” I suggest “fossil-fuel advocate.”)
On one level, this is a simple matter of housekeeping. Gristmill is the best — and arguably the only — place for environmentalists and climate activists to wrestle with the complicated and daunting challenge before us. We will make no headway if our adversaries and enemies are free to hijack our only forum. But the problem highlighted by fossil-fuel advocate posts goes beyond housekeeping.
For starters, why are we reacting? It is one thing to expend time and energy responding to fossil-fuel advocates in the mainstream. I argue that this too is a waste of time unless it is done in a way that advances our own story, but there is a credible argument to put resources into watchdogging in the mainstream.
I see no logic in responding here, however. It takes time and effort and junks up what might otherwise be interesting and productive threads. So why do we bother?
I suggest that the urge to refute fossil-fuel advocates displays a confusion over role and indicates gnawing uncertainties where there ought to be principled conviction.
Environmentalists and climate-action advocates are not climate scientists. After two decades of U.S. environmental leadership drenched in climate science, however, we may be excused for thinking that it is our responsibility to prove the reality of climate change.
This is and has always been a fool’s errand that is utterly inconsistent with environmentalist principles of action. We need only to know that there is a reasonable chance that abrupt climate change may occur to advocate for vigorous precautionary action.
The reason we are less than secure when confronted with pseudo-climate science, I think, is that the climate-change programs of major environmental organizations have cast the conflict as if we were contending in a legislature made up of scientists. Our position, stripped the essentials, is that we have more climate scientists than you do, therefore we are right.
What we have not done is offer environmentalists and climate-action advocates a simple, stripped-down climate science story. Indeed, we have done precisely the opposite. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth is the perfect example. All the charts and graphs are compelling, but who is going to remember all that stuff? The mass of data is never boiled down to the essentials. Jim Hansen’s definition of the precautionary standard for global action (PDF) is far more compelling because it is spare and stripped to the bone.
We are also inclined to debate because we see our primary audience as the general public, and our principle role as educators. Our most important audience, however, is the small percentage — probably no more than 5 percent of Americans — convinced that climate change is the single greatest threat to our world. The last thing that group cares about is refuting specious arguments.
Civilization and the fate of more than half the remaining species in the world are on the line here. The handful of bozos who get their rocks off by denying reality should be ignored, trashed, or tossed out on their ear, not debated. C’mon, polar bears are drowning. We don’t need to be trading journal article references!
As World War II is pointed up as analogous to the scale of global action now required to address climate change, leadership at this time bears comparison to the final hours before that war. It is time to stop placating our enemies and start worrying about rallying believers and shock troops.
We have been acting like Neville Chamberlain, whose language could be adopted verbatim in the U.S. climate action agenda:
… [We must] by all means in our power to avoid war, by analyzing possible causes, by trying to remove them, by discussion in a spirit of collaboration and goodwill … “
And start talking like Winston Churchill:
… we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.