So it’s been interesting to read Matthew Nisbet’s Powershift report alongside the Spring issue of Sociological Quarterly, which contains a series of themed essays in a special section called, “Symposium on the Politics of Climate Change.” I’ll be discussing one of the pieces at length in a post that will go up tomorrow at the Climate Central blog.
Many pieces of major “watershed” legislation have often incubated on the margins of the governmental policy agenda for many years before a crisis created opportunities for legislation. In most cases, these bills were part of a reform period in which a strong center/left governing coalition was able to override obstacles to major legislation. The abolition of slavery and radical reconstruction in and immediately after the Civil War, the “Second New Deal” in the mid-1930, and the Civil Rights Acts and “Great Society” legislation in the 1960s all fit this pattern. The strong Democratic margin in the 211th Congress was enough to secure the House passage of the Waxman-Markey Bill but the legislation died in the Senate, which had already voted three times in the past decade against global warming. Until a comparable governmental margin again occurs, it seems unlikely that the issue will again become the subject of legislation. Meanwhile, its proponents will have to continue to press their cause through the mass media, in the arena of public opinion, in elections and before Congress and the White House.
It must infuriate Joe Romm when people don’t take his word as gospel. Here’s how he opens his latest effort to slime a respected scholar and shape the climate narrative to his liking.
We’re starting to see pieces of counterfactual history on the climate bill in The New Republic and elsewhere based in part on discredited scholarship.
Of course, Romm being Romm, cites himself on that claim of “discredited scholarship.” He’s so classy that he doesn’t provide a link to Bradford Plumer’s studiously fair article in The New Republic. Romm also can’t bring himself (as of yet) to acknowledge where it is “elsewhere” that we’re seeing examples of this “counterfactual history.” (Nature, in this article and editorial, is thus far the most prominent publication to give Nisbet’s report a fair hearing.)
The other day I compared Romm’s relentless, attacking style to that of a famous pugilist. But his imperious proclamations are so cartoonish that he also reminds me of King Julien, a character from the hilarious Penguins of Madagascar movie and TV show. (One of the joys of being a parent of small children is having an excuse for arrested development.)
Can we all agree on this statement from Penn State geologist Richard Alley?
I think it’s important to say that the interaction between radiation and gases in the air is not red or blue. It’s not Republican or Democrat, or libertarian or anything else. It’s physics.
Here’s a snippet from the Yale Forum exchange that I want to highlight.
YALE FORUM: It’s interesting, Dr. Alley, that you felt compelled, very early in both the TV documentary and in the book, to point out your party registration as a Republican and your somewhat “right of center” political philosophy, and to mention that you regularly attend a mainstream church. What is the background on your feeling a need to make those points?
ALLEY: We discussed this a whole lot. I don’t like to wave flags, and I don’t usually wear that on my sleeve. But this issue has become so strongly political. In my experience, if I open my mouth and say there is interaction between radiation in the atmosphere and certain gases at these wave lengths, and it has these strengths, there are a reasonable number of people who look at me and say “You’re one of those darned liberals, and you’re trying to take away my pickup truck.”
Is Alley conflating two separate issues in that last part about the pickup truck owner? Because as I understand it, there are three groups of people: 1) Those who simply don’t believe the physics; 2) Those who believe the physics but are not sold on the dire projections; and 3) Those who believe the physics and are sufficiently concerned about the worst case scenarios to support policies that would restrict greenhouse gases.
Now I know that there is a splintering in that last group of people who support different policies and political approaches, but have I got the three main categories right?
I ask because wouldn’t the larger public dialogue be better defined if we could establish that the majority of opposition to climate action stemmed from either 1) rejection of the physics, or 2) rejection of the projected dire impacts?
If it’s the latter, as I suspect, then perhaps we can stop arguing so much over the science (and uncertainties) and shift the debate to a “risk management framework,” as one speaker said at this 2007 conference on climate change and national security. It may not make the politics of climate change any less toxic, but at least the terms of the debate would be better defined.
An editorial in Nature says that Matthew Nisbet’s Climate shift report “dismantles three of the most common reasons given by those who have tried, and failed, to garner widespread support for policies to restrict greenhouse gases.”
The Nature editorial helpfully lays out the three widely help assumptions that the Power shift report challenges:
First “” the failure of the US Senate to pass a cap-and-trade bill in 2010 cannot be blamed directly on the financial lobbying muscle of the conservative movement and its allies in industry. In 2009, the report says, although a network of prominent opponents of cap and trade, including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, spent a total of US$272 million lobbying policy-makers, environmental groups in favour of cap and trade mobilized $229 million from companies such as General Electric and other supporters to lobby for environmental issues. Indeed, the effort to pass cap and trade, Nisbet notes, “may have been the best-financed political cause in American history”.
Second “” most of the mainstream media coverage of climate change gets it right. During 2009 and 2010, Nisbet writes, around nine out of ten news and opinion articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN’s online site reflected the consensus scientific position. The Wall Street Journal regularly presented the opposite view in its opinion pages, but eight out of ten news items still backed the science.
Third “” conservative media outlets such as Fox News and controversies such as the coverage of e-mails hacked from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom have a minimal impact on public attitudes to climate change, because such influences tend to only reinforce the views of those who already hold doubts.
That Nature is taking the report seriously and not the partisan potshots lobbed at it, is encouraging. The reason why this is important is nicely put by Gary Bowden over at Ecological Sociology:
It is tidy and simplistic to feel that there are powerful forces out there that are corrupting the public’s view. The reality is much more complex. Unfortunately, [Joe] Romm has drug the discussion down to a focus on simplistic and, if not irrelevant at least secondary, concerns. If the climate change advocacy community dwells exclusively on these matters and fails to address the need for serious attention to the content of their message and the way it is framed, Romm will have won the battle while helping lose the war.