We’re constantly told that any slip of the tongue or exaggeration on climate science can destroy our credibility. If we ally ourselves with respected scientists like Kerry Emanuel and Tom Wigley who believe there is a strong connection between hurricanes and climate change, we open ourselves to charges of alarmism, hysteria, and demagoguery. In the favored phrasing, we provide "ammunition" to conservative ideologues.
Well, we have before us a paradigmatic case study demonstrating where those ideologues really get their ammo. It can serve, I hope, as a cautionary tale. Follow along.
Chapter 1: Pielke Jr.
Way back when, Roger Pielke Jr. coined the term "non-skeptic heretics" for people who believe that global warming is happening, that it’s anthropogenic, that it poses an unprecedented long-term challenge, and that we should take immediate action to respond to it … but who aren’t, you know, dirty hippies.
Now, Pielke Jr. didn’t intend primarily to characterize global-warming activists as hysterical dirty hippies. He just doesn’t like the policy stance of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. He wanted to make a place in the debate for people who accept global-warming science but don’t agree with FCCC policy recommendations. He had his own reasons for playing off the dirty hippies.
Everyone has their own reasons. But watch what happens.
Chapter 2: Revkin
Respected New York Times science writer Andy Revkin then did the world a grave injustice by lending credibility and a huge audience to Pielke Jr.’s silly idea, which was redubbed "nonskeptical heretics," rendering it even more nonsensical. Revkin wrote a story on the "new middle" in the climate debate, a middle occupied by people who believe that global warming is happening, that it’s anthropogenic, that it poses an unprecedented long-term challenge, and that we should take immediate action to respond to it … but who aren’t, you know, dirty hippies.
Now, Revkin didn’t intend primarily to characterize global-warming activists as hysterical dirty hippies. He just wanted to draw attention to a different, more measured way of framing global-warming mitigation, more as a long-term program of risk management than an emergency mobilization. He had his own reasons for playing off the dirty hippies.
They all do. We continue.
Chapter 3: Mooney
Science journalist Chris Mooney has been researching a book on the connection between hurricanes and climate change. In the course of his research, he’s come across a lot of people in the public press mischaracterizing the science, stating categorically that there is or isn’t such a connection, when the scientific consensus is that it’s just too soon to tell (PDF). This led him to write a post repudiating the dirty hippies and embracing the "non-skeptic heretic" label (with lots of fine-print hedging).
Of course, Mooney didn’t intend primarily to characterize global-warming activists as hysterical dirty hippies. He was just trying to make the point that in this area, hurricanes, the science has been abused by everybody. He had his own reasons for playing off the dirty hippies.
Who doesn’t? We move on.
Chapter 4: Kleiman
Policy wonk and combative progressive blogger Mark Kleiman has become enamored with "geoengineering," the practice of deliberately altering large-scale earth systems. He wants to use it to fight climate change. He’s perplexed and upset that it doesn’t get enough research dollars or enough attention in the popular press. He blames the dirty hippies for this state of affairs, accusing them of squashing any policy option that doesn’t involve heavy taxation and regulation.
Of course, Kleiman didn’t intend primarily to characterize global-warming activists as hysterical dirty hippies. He was just trying to advocate for increased attention to geoengineering. He had his own reasons for playing off the dirty hippies.
These dirty hippies sure do come in handy when you want your own position to look moderate, huh?
But then, inevitably:
Chapter 5: Young
In the Boston Globe, Cathy Young — a contributing editor at Reason magazine, funded by the libertarian Reason Foundation — makes good use of Pielke Jr., Mooney, and Kleiman in a state-of-the-art piece of agit-prop. She says global warming skeptics are always getting yelled at, so why is no one yelling at the dirty hippies, for whom "environmentalism has become a matter of not just ideology but quasi-religious zealotry"?
She quotes Mooney saying that sometimes "environmental groups and their ilk oversell the science." She quotes Kleiman saying that the dirty hippies’ "eagerness to believe the worst is just as evident as the right wing’s denialism." And to cap it off, she cites Pielke Jr.’s "’nonskeptical heretics’ — those who believe that human-caused global warming is a real problem, but one that can be met in part with technological management and adaptation." And to boot: "Mooney has come to embrace such a viewpoint as well."
This is a classic of the genre, lifted straight from template. Note carefully what’s happening: The denialists have been discredited. Now, the right wing is eager to cast the debate as having two equivalent sides, "alarmists and deniers." That way they use the marginalization of denialists to marginalize advocates. It’s really a clever piece of judo, one the right’s become incredibly adept at using.
It relies, of course, on everyone accepting that there are "two sides." That way, having given up the ghost of denialism, the right can now turn to advocating weak, industry-friendly policies and calling them the "sensible middle."
It’s bullshit. Once more for the cheap seats: there is no equivalence between denialists and global-warming activists. None. Their motives are not the same. They do not have equal credibility or deserve equal respect. They are not "two sides" of anything. There are people within the reality-based community who disagree with one another over the proper way to communicate about climate change and the proper way to respond to it. But those internal disagreements are microscopic compared to the disagreement between denialists and reality.
Chapter 6: Regrets
To their credit, both Mooney and Kleiman realize what’s been done to them. In a follow-up post, Mooney says that Young "appears to have put me in a box that I don’t wish to occupy." He says that …
… after reading it, one might get the impression that I think (as Young apparently does) that the "industry" and "environmentalist" sides are equally culpable when it comes to misusing science in the global warming debate. In fact, however, I don’t think that at all.
In a follow-up post of his own, Kleiman says "Young and I don’t agree nearly as much as the column suggests." He say she’s "carrying even-handedness a little bit too far," and insists:
I was careful to say, in anticipation of such a misinterpretation, that the two sides aren’t "equally wrong," and to point out that on this issue the stubbornness of the right in denying the problem has robbed it of credibility when it comes to discussing solutions.
Mooney and Kleiman both adopt a tone of bemusement, as though Young has innocently misconstrued them. Are they really so naive? Young is following a right-wing script that dates back decades.
This is how the far right colonizes the debate: they caricature a far-left strawman position, attribute it to "some" on the other side, and then cast their own position as the "center" between the far-right position and the mythical or marginalized far-left position. They’ve done this dozens of times, on a whole panoply of issues.
To help in the process, they enlist the aid of people on the left who bash other people on the left. Sure, Pielke Jr., Mooney, and Kleiman all had their own idiosyncratic reasons for bashing dirty hippies. But do you think it’s an accident that Young stripped all those idiosyncratic reasons away and left only the hippie-bashing? Far from it. That was her whole intent.
That’s where conservative ideologues get their "ammunition" — from progressives who, in a vain attempt to bolster their own credentials as moderates, use activists as strawmen against which to define themselves. It’s the self-appointed centrists who are giving the right the ammunition it most needs.
As for Pielke Jr.? He thinks Young’s column is "pretty much on target." But then, he’s been playing footsie with denialists and right-wing ideologues for years; they’re his biggest fans. Unlike Mooney and Kleiman, who got duped, Pielke Jr. knows exactly how the game is played.
Nobody will deny that there are overenthusiastic voices in the climate-change coalition. But no sane assessment of the current political and climatological situation could conclude that they are the big problem. The problem is the enormous inertia of an elite politico-corporate establishment that will fight substantive change with every resource at its disposal. Yes, bashing that establishment is the "obvious" thing to do, but it’s obvious because its right. Let’s quit trying so hard to be mavericks for our ego’s sake and start being warriors for future generations’ sake.
In short: everyone, please, luvagod, forget about the goddamn dirty hippies.