A Climate Myth

By Keith Kloor | March 12, 2011 7:55 am

The normally level-headed Kevin Drum, who says “we now officially live in the era of guerrilla activism,” spots a trend.

It started in the fall of 2009 with the infamous ACORN sting. Conservative activist James O’Keefe secretly recorded ACORN employees providing advice to a faux pimp who wanted to bring underage prostitutes into the country from El Salvador. The tapes were edited misleadingly, but there was genuine misconduct there too and ACORN was soon defunded and out of business.

I think that’s a fair summation. But Drum goes off the tracks with his next example:

A few months later, hackers broke into a server at the University of East Anglia and stole a cache of emails to and from various climate researchers. Multiple investigations eventually concluded that the emails displayed no serious misconduct, but no matter. Coming right before the Copenhagen climate conference, public opinion fixated on a few out-of-context excerpts and support for action to combat global warming plummeted. Copenhagen turned into a fiasco and climate legislation in the United States collapsed.

There’s a major stretch. A bunch of things doomed Copenhagen, such as oversized expectations and what Roger Pielke Jr. calls the iron law of climate policy, but the East Anglia hack? Hardly. Nor can it be blamed for the legislative collapse in the Senate last year, which as Ryan Lizza laid out in The New Yorker, had more to do with raw politics, the economic recession, and public disinterest.

Speaking of the public’s level of support for action on global warming, that’s been pretty well documented as broad but shallow, waxing and waning slightly with the state of the economy in the last few decades.

I realize its convenient for all sides to blame climategate for failures in climate policy, but it doesn’t hold water.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, climate politics
  • TimG

    Climategate provided covering fire while the politicians staged the retreat they would have needed to do anyways.

    Also, I think people who think there was ever public support for serious action are deluding themselves because whenever the public is asked if they would be willing to pay personally for action supported plumments. We see this phenomena unfolding in Austrilia right now.

  • Menth

    I agree with TimG.

    I know many have a beef with RPJ because he rains on their disaster attribution parades but I have yet to see a persuasive argument against his “Iron Law” (not saying it doesn’t exist). This to me is the fundamental impediment to meaningful de-carbonization and so the recurring debate here about scientists vs. journalists is moot. If anything the blame for “poor communication” should fall on policy makers for being unable to effectively assure the public that the policy they seek to implement will not economically burden society.

  • Menth

    “I know many have a beef with RPJ because he rains on their disaster attribution parades but I have yet to see a persuasive argument against his “Iron Law” (not saying it doesn’t exist)”

    This is poorly worded. What I meant was that I have yet to see a persuasive argument against his “Iron Law” though I’m open to the possibility that there is one.

  • http://replacefossil.com Paul Kelly

    Start out with “fact” not in evidence (Hackers); go to false statement (No serious misconduct – a violation of FOI laws was found, escaping action by statute of limitations). Throw in unfounded assertion (out-of-context excerpts). Jump to a low probability conclusion and you have an example of what Eli et al considers quality journalism.

  • Sashka

    @ 3
    That’s exactly how I read it. I’m not sure how else one could interpret what you said in 2.

  • Keith Grubb

     If anything the blame for “poor communication” should fall on policy makers for being unable to effectively assure the public that the policy they seek to implement will not economically burden society.

    Please lay out the sales pitch, I’ll pass it along to my senator. If what you say is true, you ‘ve got a deal my friend.

  • anon

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monkey_Wrench_Gang
    2. Ned Ludd
    3. Kevin Drum is the guy who kept saying that we need cap and trade because Republicans were too stupid to realize that cap and trade was the same as a carbon tax, and we the Democrats could not be honest and call for a tax.  I told him repeatedly that stupid as Republicans are, they aren’t that stupid.

  • Alexander Harvey

    Some political decisions are of a magnitude that ensures they are only taken when much of their consequence is inevitable. In a sense big bold acts may likely be no more than confirmation of predestined reality.

    I suspect this may have occurred in the UK with legislation binding a department of state to carry out a timetable of steps to achieve the goal of a carbon minimal economy by 2050, as embodied in the 2008 act.

    Do I think that this was to save the planet? Yes, but I think the decision may only have been possible because our de-carbonising is unavoidable. We have looked to the future and it is overwhelmingly energy autarkic.

    It is not a party political issue, whoever came to power would be presented with the same stark vision. The continuity of thought produced by a large permanent bureaucracy tends to guarantee that our really big decisions transcend political ideology and only require political confirmation.

    I believe that substantial de-carbonisation in the UK is inevitable, the 2008 act serves only to plot its likely course and gain benefit in terms of the ability to finance the already necessary refurbishment of our energy infrastructure.

    Put simply, we do not have the fiscal resourse to fund our energy future, and I doubt that we would be able to raise the capital cheaply without the legal framework of the 2008 act.

    So it seems we are to add another successful post to our row of international firsts, post-global-imperial, post-industrial, post-carbon. Each was our bowing to the inevitable, and each due to no longer being able to afford the alternative.

    Obviously, my attribution of motivation is speculative. I can have no idea what goes on inside the head of out leaders. It may be that I simply do not believe that such a major decision be based on climate futures alone. I also do not believe when leaders must act because they can see no alternative, they rush to admit that they were powerless to do otherwise.

    Why the UK? Well we lead in all things post, but others follow. Post-industrial nationhood is something that is coming to some, many, or most of the developed world.

    There are of course political incentives to play a lead in de-carbonisation, perhaps more so for us due to our continued relationship with the Commonwealth of Nations, many of which are tragically underdeveloped. The question of how these nations are to develop in a period of diminshing energy options is part and parcel of post-imperial thinking. Perhaps the greatest political incentive is domestic, and is taken from dressing up the inevitable in the cloak of leadership.

    Whither the rest of the world?

    I suspect that for all of the heat and smoke of the debate the decisions will not come until the matter ceases to be party political, not until whoever comes into office the briefing is the same and the decision done in all but knowing how to dress its nakedness.

    Once it is the only option that makes sense it will finally become a triumph of politics.

    I can guess vaguely at the precise reasons for the UK, and another favourite is that we would no longer compete sucessfully in the global energy market by dint of economic muscle and lack the opportunity to do so with borrowed money.

    Mine is a gloomy prognosis and hampered by by an irrational belief in the rationality of politicians.


  • Pascvaks

    Many good thoughts here but remember what we’re talking about is politics, and politics is people.  There’s more to psychology than science in what –if anything– is done about anything with people and politics.  Copenhagen failed because people simply weren’t ready to jump off the cliff and into the sea yet.  Remember, nations live and die very much like people do.  Wonder why?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


See More

Collapse bottom bar