The myth of ‘both sides do it’ emerges yet again
Several people last week linked to a piece by leading climate researcher Kerry Emanuel in the Boston Review. I finally got around to reading it, and sure enough, the first 90% or so is fantastic. This is the kind of piece I’d give someone still doubtful about the basic IPCC consensus — it’s sober and calm, it doesn’t overstate the confidence of the science or elide the uncertainties, nor does it cushion the basic conclusion, and it is written with obvious authority and command of the subject matter.
Sadly, it goes off the rails toward the end, when Emanuel wades into political waters and, out of nowhere, pulls a reverse armstand back double somersault False Equivalence maneuver. I give it points for degree of difficulty, but must disqualify it on the basis of accuracy.
At roughly this time [of Hansen’s original 1988 testimony], radical environmental groups and a handful of scientists influenced by them leapt into the fray with rather obvious ulterior motives. This jump-started the politicization of the issue, and conservative groups, financed by auto makers and big oil, responded with counterattacks. This also marked the onset of an interesting and disturbing phenomenon that continues to this day. A very small number of climate scientists adopted dogmatic positions and in so doing lost credibility among the vast majority who remained committed to an unbiased search for answers. On the left, an argument emerged urging fellow scientists to deliberately exaggerate their findings so as to galvanize an apathetic public, an idea that, fortunately, failed in the scientific arena but which took root in Hollywood, culminating in the 2004 release of The Day After Tomorrow. On the right, the search began for negative feedbacks that would counter increasing greenhouse gases: imaginative ideas emerged, but they have largely failed the acid test of comparison to observations. But as the dogmatists grew increasingly alienated from the scientific mainstream, they were embraced by political groups and journalists, who thrust them into the limelight. This produced a gross distortion in the public perception of the scientific debate. Ever eager for the drama of competing dogmas, the media largely ignored mainstream scientists whose hesitations did not make good copy. As the global-warming signal continues to emerge, this soap opera is kept alive by a dwindling number of deniers constantly tapped for interviews by journalists who pretend to look for balance.
Good lord. Let’s trace the steps here.
A small group of dogmatic scientists, aided by conservative groups and lazy journalists, has grossly distorted the public’s view of climate science, but only because they were provoked. What could they do but respond with "counterattacks"? What else can you expect people to do when confronted by [ominous synthesizer tone rising…] dirty hippies [sound of child screaming; violins sawing; glass breaking; wind whistling through barren trees]. My God, they’re only human.
Now, intuitively you might think that "conservative groups, financed by auto makers and big oil" were acting out of more familiar, pedestrian motives — like, say, protecting their immediate financial interests. Perhaps there was a smidge of that. A skoche. But mainly the dirty hippies made them do it with their sinister ulterior motives, like saving the planet and all that crap.
Among the dirty hippies, you see, an "argument emerged" — such curious use of the passive voice! — that scientists should purposely exaggerate their findings. Emanuel doesn’t identify the agents behind this mysterious emergence, or cite anyone actually making the argument, but you just know they were making it, because, wait for it: that one guy made that one movie!
Once more through, for the cheap seats: The dirty hippies — who were correct about global warming — leapt into the debate with "ulterior motives," thus "jump-starting" the process whereby an organized group of conservative propagandists confused the public on global warming for going on 20 years. Shame on those dirty hippies, right? If only they’d kept their damn mouths shut, we all could have had a reasonable discussion about this thing.
But that’s not all they’re responsible for. We return to Emanuel, who is shaking his head in bemusement that conservatives haven’t been quicker to act on global warming, ’cause gosh, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious ideological justification for their implacable denialism and obstructionism. Why, it’s a "paradox," he says. (*cough*$$$*cough*)
The left has its own paradoxes, apparently. It views wind energy with "deep ambivalence," as evidenced by Ted Kennedy opposing a wind farm that obstructed his ocean view. (Hey, case closed!) Then we come to the heart of the matter:
… environmentalists have only just begun to rethink their visceral opposition to nuclear power. Had it not been for green opposition, the United States today might derive most of its electricity from nuclear power, as does France; thus the environmentalists must accept a large measure of responsibility for today’s most critical environmental problem.
The dirty hippies bear "a large measure of responsibility" for global warming because they opposed — nay, single-handedly thwarted — U.S. nuclear power. Wow. I’ll just leave that sitting there.
I’m sorry for all the sarcasm, but I barely know what to say about stuff like this any more. It’s like everyone’s drugged, like everyone’s agreed to close their eyes and pretend that the last 30 of political history never happened.
Sparked, perhaps, by the ’60s and ’70s counterculture movements, the American political right has become an ideologically radicalized coalition of corporatists, militarists, and fundamentalists, united by their hostility toward empiricism. The youth counterculture movements effectively died out as cultural forces of any significance by the 1980s, but the radicalization of the right has only accelerated since then.
That’s the central story of American politics over the last few decades: the radicalization of the right.
Still, even now, people want to pretend like the radicalized right is “one side,” balanced by the dirty hippies on the other. But that simply is not the case. It does not comport with recent history or the contemporary political landscape. Radicalized dirty hippies are an anachronism, honored in the breach by op-eds in need of strawmen; radicalized conservatives infuse every branch of government and most of the corporate world.
We’re going to have to cast off this collective illusion if we want to make any progress in this country. We can start by telling the truth about the political history of the climate debate: conservatives, acting on behalf of corporate interests, intentionally generated confusion and delay. That’s the long and short of it. You can add nuance ’til the cows come home, but the fact remains that there is no commensurate sin on the “other side.” There is no other side of any size or influence. There’s only The Rest of Us, who agree that global warming is a big problem that requires immediate, concerted action.
The resistance to acknowledging this basic state of affairs is so deep in the subconscious of self-appointed centrists and mainstream media that I despair of ever dislodging it.