Attention climate wonks: you can't take the politics out of politics
In 2004, Princeton scholars Steve Pacala and Rob Socolow published a paper [PDF] in the journal Science that has since become one of the most cited, celebrated, vilified, and contested papers in the history of climate wonkery. The famous “wedges” analysis purports to show how greenhouse-gas emissions can be reduced to safe levels via a mix — a nuclear wedge, a wind wedge, an efficiency wedge, a couple deforestation wedges, etc. It didn’t make a solution to climate change look easy, but it made one look possible. It offered a conceptual model for a solution. It’s a great example of climate wonks doing what climate wonks do best.
Socolow recently penned a follow-up essay about the wedges analysis. It’s a great example of what climate wonks do worst.
One part is a discussion of wedges as a means of understanding climate solutions. That is a somewhat technical issue that I’m just going to bracket for now. The other thread has to do with a familiar question: why, given increasingly dire warnings from scientists and increasingly strong arguments for action, is the world (particularly the U.S.) doing so little to address climate change? And how can that be changed?
You’ll be shocked to hear that Socolow, who spends his life in a world of ideas and explanations, concludes that the answer is better ideas and explanations. Do the ideas and explanations of climate hawks need to be more compelling, more urgent, more emotionally resonant? Oh no. Climate hawks need to dial down the emotional resonance and add more hedges and nuances to their explanations. Specifically, they need to more prominently acknowledge that: 1) climate change is unpleasant, unwelcome news, 2) climate science is unfinished and many of its projections are uncertain, and 3) many of the proposed solutions to climate change carry risks of their own.
I don’t want to be disrespectful. Socolow really is one of the greats and has added immeasurably to our understanding of climate change. But to me this reads like parody.
What motivates Socolow’s prescription becomes a little clearer in one of his subsequent responses:
Politicians follow publics, and the publics are dismayed. So, I think in terms of reaching the public. I think the climate change activists, myself included, have lost the American middle, and I’m trying to say that this loss can be explained and maybe even undone. Thinking in terms of an unwelcome message, a partially understood problem where very out bad outcomes cannot be ruled out, and universally flawed solutions seems to me a grown-up way of engaging the electorate.
“Hey, politician, what sort of message will help you rouse the masses?” “Got anything unwelcome and partially understood, with flawed solutions?”
But seriously. Here are the outlines of a theory of politics I think many wonks share. It envisions a vast “American middle,” obscured by the din of partisans on both sides, filled with undecided, uncommitted, but fundamentally reasonable people who are just waiting to be spoken to in a “grown-up” way. (By an odd coincidence, this middle tends to look exactly like the writers who imagine it … I’m looking at you, David Brooks.) When someone finally speaks to the middle in a grown-up way, they will make up their mind, and when they do, politicians will reflect their views.
The problem is that this theory of politics is mistaken. It is not even really a theory of politics so much as a desire to remove politics from politics. (I’ve written about this before — see, e.g., here.)
There is no vast middle full of reasonable people. Talk to political scientists about that some time and watch them pull their hair out. Or read this post from political scientists John Sides: “Three Myths about Political Independents.” Most people who identify as “independent” in fact behave as partisans, voting reliably for one party or the other.
People do not determine their opinions on political issues (and climate is a political issue) based on rational assessments of facts. They tend to adopt the views of their peer groups and use motivated reasoning to find support for those pre-existing positions. For the most part, those who strongly support climate action do not do so because they’ve been rationally persuaded; in fact, they tend to be quite ignorant of the scientific details. People who reject climate science tend to know the most about it, because they’re motivated to learn about it in order to reject it. (See Anthony Leiserowitz’s Six Americas study for more on that.)
And finally, U.S. politicians are perfectly adept at ignoring the opinions of the U.S. public (which, after all, overwhelmingly supports taxing the rich, strengthening the social safety net, and improving air and water protections). It is not the opinions of the reasonable nonpartisan masses but intensity and money that win in politics. That’s why a relatively small group of hardcore anti-clean energy climate skeptics in the right-wing base has exercised effective veto power over American climate policy: they have the intensity and they’re backed by money.
Politics is not a grad school seminar and this notion of explaining things in a more grown-up way to a mythical middle is a wonk’s fantasy. What’s needed is a social movement with some intensity and money. The way to win a political fight is with better politics.
While I share [Socolow's] discomfort with the message that fighting climate change means nothing but good news for everybody, I don’t see any evidence that a more nuanced message would do anything to increase the demand for action from the public or reduce the opposition from groups like the Chamber, API, and NAM. We should acknowledge that protecting the climate is hard work, but we should not do so with the expectation that this will produce a consensus for action.
You could say that.
Victor points out that interests and costs, not the nuances of science, are what drive political outcomes. I reviewed Victor’s fantastic book recently, much of which I agree with, some of which I don’t. But I don’t think he’s ever said anything more on-the-money than this:
The community of policy advocates — especially folks drawn from academic science and engineering — is shockingly naïve about politics and the strategy of political action.
Politics is messy, tedious, and often degrading. It involves flawed people, flawed messages, suboptimal policies, heated confrontation, and heartbreak. It is not something that can be cleanly “framed.”
Climate change is an extraordinarily difficult problem, as Victor and others have pointed out many times. It is not well-suited to human cognition, psychology, or collective decisionmaking. But that’s all the more reason to approach strategy with clear eyes and no illusions.
Just by way of example, and to conclude, let me point to a great post from long-time labor organizer, social historian, and all-around brilliant guy Rich Yeselson: “The four habits of highly successful social movements.” See if you can find “hedged, nuanced messages” on the list.
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