Tobis on the multidimensionality of the climate discussion
Readers know that I was mightily bothered by Andy Revkin’s attempt to classify certain thinkers as part of the "middle" of the climate debate. Some folks have attacked Revkin because they think one "side" — the "alarmist" side — is correct. That wasn’t quite my point. What I was trying to get at I just found summarized in a comment by Michael Tobis over on John Fleck’s site. Tobis makes the point with many fewer words:
Opinion space is multidimensional, not linear. That is my problem with Revkin’s approach.
Journalism’s common error isn’t just about concentrating on extremes, it’s about modeling the whole conversation as a one-dimensional spectrum of opinion.
In particular I cannot think of dramatically different positions prominently held where I lie on a line between them.
For instance I believe that 1) we will be in big trouble if we don’t change course 2) changing course will not be technically difficult nor have a large impact on lifestyles 3) changing course *will* be socially difficult 4) the short-term impact of this necessary difficult adjustment will be negative on the whole 5) changes in individual behavior (green shopping) not only don’t matter significantly but are likely to be modestly counterproductive in non-obvious ways 6) nuclear power and coal with carbon sequestration are likely to be necessary 7) geoengineering other than carbon sequestration is far too dangerous to consider 8) universal development and dignity is possible but only with very careful planning.
Some of these opinions are not widely held, and some which are widely held individually are not often held pairwise by the same person, but I find them entirely consistent. Where does that put me on the "spectrum"?
I am not objecting to the idea of being reasonable. I am objecting to the idea that the "middle" is a useful construct. It trivializes irreducible complexity and also suggests the feasibility of complacency and modest action.
That’s just it. The climate issue is extraordinarily complex, and there are many different questions in contention. Different people will come down in different places on different questions. Trying to model that complexity as points along a single line distorts the discussion. It obscures more than it reveals.
The only thing I’d add to Tobis’ point is that deeming certain people "centrist" is not only inaccurate. It is also pernicious. There is a well-understood psychosocial dynamic in journalism whereby certain writers try to establish their bona fides among their peers by contrasting their reasonable views with extremists on "both sides." When a national journalist deems a person "centrist," it confers a unique kind of credibility and standing on that person. It gives that person an exalted place in the national discussion. It makes that person’s views a kind of benchmark against which others are judged.
Why, of the many innovative, creative thinkers and writers working around climate and energy today, you would want to give that kind of credibility to Gingrich and Lomborg is a mystery to me.