Skeptics and ressentiment
Most of what needs to be said about the substance of the just-concluded Heartland Institute Skepticpalooza Clown Show has been said (see, in particular, Miles and Joe). Just a couple of stray observations.
The science of climate change has nothing to do with it. There are plenty of interesting questions in climate science, but the people at this conference have nothing to say about them. To me, the interesting aspects of the conference are sociological and political.
On the sociological front, I was groping around for the right analogy when I remembered a club some kids formed in my high school. I wish I could remember the name, it was something funny — Cookeville Crew or something like that. It was formed by a motley assortment of kids, some that were too nerdy to hang with the cool crowd but not smart enough to hang with the actual AP nerds, some white trash types that weren’t macho enough to hang with the actual rednecks … all the insecure outcasts with no natural niche.
What I remember most about this club was the spectacular passive-aggressiveness of it. There were rules about who could join (not that people were lining up) and charter statements on how bogus and stupid everybody else at school was, not to mention teachers, parents, "society," etc. It was founded around alleged contempt for the "popular kids," yet the popular kids were all they could talk about. It wasn’t too hard to trace the whole phenomenon back to a deep sense of hurt and rejection. Any one of them would have killed to be popular, or even accepted, but since that wasn’t an option they made rejection of the hated/envied/idealized popular kids a matter of principle. (Strikes me that misogyny often works the same way.)
I’m sure you know the type, maybe even were the type. With luck, some of these folk survived into adulthood psychologically intact, found some sense of identity, a life of their own, and got on with things. Others, sadly, never lost that deep sense of aggrievement and persecution.
Imagine, then, a similar club of adults. Imagine that the message of the adults’ club just happened to be amenable to the interests of some very large industries and some very powerful ideologues. Imagine that these industries and ideologues poured money into the club and enabled it to assemble the trappings of legitimacy — think tanks, magazines, media outlets, conferences, declarations, and so on. Anybody who joined the club was guaranteed an important place at the table and a megaphone to spread the word; it became a magnet for the disaffected and excluded.
That, basically, is the skeptic "movement." While there’s talk about science on the surface, there’s no particularly coherent scientific perspective — it’s a grab bag. What really animates these people is resentment toward the popular kids: Al Gore, Leo Dicaprio, "Hollywood," the mainstream media. And like all resentment, just beneath the surface is raw envy. Though they say they reject the consensus, the IPCC, the UN, and all the rest of it, their need to be taken seriously by the establishment is palpable. They form shadow climate councils, shadow climate journals, shadow narratives — in a hundred ways, they unconsciously emulate the very people they claim to disdain. And they whine, whine, whine, incessantly, about not being taken seriously, being excluded by the media, being persecuted by climate activists. My god, the whining.
Anyway, the whole thing makes me vaguely uncomfortable, the way I feel around people who are embarrassing themselves and don’t know it. In high school the club could just be ignored and allowed to fizzle out. But now the club has millions of dollars behind it, enough that it can thrust itself on the rest of us. One hesitates to resort to open mockery, but their ideas aren’t worth taking seriously, and they won’t go away, and they are unpleasant people, so … what do you do? Seems to me American culture hasn’t really figured that out yet.
(This is getting way too long, but I’ll just note quickly that this same basic social dynamic is at work throughout what remains of "movement conservatism" — resentment, envy, and insecurity covered in a veneer of rage and steeped in a martyr complex. It’s by no means exclusive to movement conservatism, of course, but at least in our historical moment it seems to have concentrated there.)