With the Keystone XL pipeline back in the news this week, there’s been some interesting discussion on the interwebs about the tensions between climate analysts and climate advocates. Time‘s Bryan Walsh has a nice run-down and cites an interesting recent post from George Hoberg called “The Three Logics of Climate Politics.” Here’s Hoberg:

The logics of analysis and advocacy are fundamentally different. The analyst is guided by aspirations for truth and well-reasoned argument, and guided largely by the value of maximizing the cost-effectiveness of solutions. They chaff against exaggerations and misuse of data by advocates on all sides, and search for the best reasoned argument for the most efficient path forward.

In contrast, the climate advocate is trying to maximize political leverage in an effort to foster systemic transformation of the energy system. The logic of political action and movement building is different from the logic of policy efficiency. The advocate works to strategically frame problems and solutions that work politically, not those that best adhere to the standards of analytical rigor. Frequently, this involves exaggerated claims that aggravate the analyst.

I would frame it slightly differently, as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. On one end you have the beat reporter: all facts, no opinion. Then there’s the analyst, who shapes facts into coherent stories about the way things are and arguments about policy choices. Then there’s the advocate, who endorses particular political outcomes. And on the far end, the activist, who sets about to create those political outcomes.

Fewer and fewer people fit neatly into any of these boxes; the lines between them are becoming ever more blurred. I wander between analysis and advocacy pretty freely and have participated in squabbles between the two types from both sides.

The most important thing to remember is that climate change is poorly suited to activism. It is huge, distant, and abstract, playing out on spatial and temporal scales beyond our daily experience, difficult to grasp intellectually and almost impossible to feel viscerally. The science is complex and, in the areas most relevant to us (e.g., regional impacts), devilishly uncertain. We evolved to prioritize risks with faces and fangs, but climate change confronts us with error bars and probability distributions. There are as yet few human faces, at least few faces familiar to wealthy Westerners, associated with it. The main harms are in the future, as are the main benefits of policy solutions, while the sacrifices required by policy are immediate. And finally, wonk-approved policy solutions are just as broad, abstract, and bloodless as the problem itself, apprehended via the intellect and not the gut. (Contrast cap-and-trade with, say, gay marriage.)

You’d have trouble creating a problem less suited to getting people passionate, off their asses and into the streets, risking arrest, pushing and nagging at politicians, creating iconic events, conflicts, symbols, and art, and generally agitating for social change. When it comes to climate change, advocates and activists start with huge, built-in disadvantages.

This has shaped the course of the climate fight in several ways. First, the initial wave of climate advocates came to it through science and analysis rather than direct experience. There were no burning rivers or choking children, only graphs and projections. They grasped the problem intellectually first, and there has been a cerebral tenor to the conversation ever since. “Look at the science!” they said, assuming everyone would think through to the consequences just as they did.

Bill McKibben and James Hansen didn’t grow up organizing or rabble-rousing. To this day, both come across like they’d rather be drinking tea and reading a book. They reasoned themselves into activism. I for one find that incredibly admirable. To take complex science, recognize the imperative it represents, and act on that imperative — without being a natural extrovert, without much encouragement from peers, without the immediate threat signals that get adrenaline pumping — is an act of heroic moral will.

A younger cohort is coming along that’s been living with climate change their whole lives. Where people my age and older have only a hard scaffolding of science and economics, this cohort is beginning to fill in the metaphors, storytelling, and emotion.

But that process is just getting underway. For now, climate activism involves a lot of left-brained groping toward right-brain resonance. It is not always pretty. There aren’t many easy or obvious ways to make viscerally affecting stories out of the models and statistics of climate science. “Cap-and-trade” certainly stirred no one’s loins. Activists are now looking around for other stories.

In Keystone XL, they found one. Through whatever combination of luck, happenstance, and tenacity, this one worked. It’s an entrée to the climate fight that is immediate enough, vivid enough, to spark the popular imagination. On Tuesday, anti-Keystoners got some 800,000 people to signal to Congress that they don’t want the pipeline. Have that many people ever done anything together on behalf of the climate?

From the perspective of activism and social change, such energy and enthusiasm is to be tended like a precious spark. Who knows if it will fade to embers after the Keystone fight is over. Maybe. All activists can do is fan it and hope it catches and spreads.

It is no surprise, then, that activists get irritated when analysts come along and pee on their kindling.

From the perspective of policy analysis, Keystone is a marginal issue. Very Serious People agree that Canada’s dirty oil is going to get burned eventually. There are other, larger sources of carbon, and more economically sensible ways to curtail them. There activists go again, making a big fuss and a bunch of exaggerated claims about something that, measured by tons of carbon reduction, is small beans relative to climate change.

Thing is, no one argues that blocking Keystone XL is a substitute for, or even a substantial step toward, coherent climate policy. The only solution that can really be said to be commensurate with the problem is some kind of global deal on carbon pricing and energy innovation. That’s not on the table. Nor is any kind of comprehensive national solution. Even if they were, we’ve already seen that “pricing carbon” doesn’t exactly get people into the streets. To find the stories/conflicts that get people fired up, activists have to come closer to home, to individual pipelines or coal plants or corporate groups like the Chamber of Commerce. The goal of activism is not primarily to craft policy but to shift the balance of power, to open a space for policymakers and their wonks to work.

No one should say false things. That is a baseline expectation that, one should note, opponents of climate action violate with numbing regularity. But there’s a lot of space between “precise, fully hedged, caveated, and footnoted truth” and “lie.”

Take the locution, “climate change caused this hurricane.” That is a crude and technically inaccurate way to phrase the matter. The proper way would be, “climate change is expected to marginally increase the severity of tropical storms and this storm is in keeping with what one would expect to result from that trend.” Zzzzzz …

“Smoking gave my father-in-law lung cancer” is inaccurate in the same way. To this day, scientists do not understand the exact mechanism whereby smoking “causes” lung cancer; all they know is that smoking increases the odds you’ll get it. Technically one should say, “my father-in-law’s lung cancer is commensurate with statistical trends among smokers in his demographic.” But one doesn’t say that. We say “smoking causes cancer,” without blinking, because it’s true enough. Saying it in a more technically accurate way sacrifices simplicity and emotional resonance in exchange for needless precision.

No one is asking analysts to sacrifice their own precision. No one’s asking them to exaggerate or “cheerlead” for activists. At least I’m not. But nitpicking activist language and second-guessing activist strategy based on analytic standards is a category error.

The consequences of failure on climate change are potentially existential. Climate activists are freaked out. (Why isn’t everyone?) They are underpowered and overmatched, figuring sh*t out on the fly. They exaggerate sometimes. They flail sometimes. But their opponents in the carbon status quo have bought a good chunk of the government and funded a whole cottage industry devoted to lying — in service of institutions and practices that, if left unchecked, will lead inexorably to widespread global suffering. By any sane calculus, it’s the carbon status quo that has earned the bulk of the analytic attention and disapprobation. No analyst should ever cross the line into deception or propaganda, but the moral weight of climate change is such that I think it’s fair to expect a sense of interpretive charity and fellowship toward those struggling against great odds to change the face of industrial civilization.