Leaving Climate Change Out of the Argument

By Keith Kloor | July 22, 2011 11:31 am

Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s billionaire mayor for the last decade, can be a force for good when he’s not strong-arming local pols to alter NYC election laws (so he can run for a third term) or installing cronies to important positions they are eminently unqualified for.

For example, I can now have a drink in a bar without my lungs filling up with a roomful of second-hand smoke. That’s huge. Bloomberg has put forward a bold vision for the city’s future, which is also huge.

So one day he can be a brass knuckles power player and the next day a civic-minded crusader. Yesterday, with news of his $50 million-dollar donation to the Sierra Club, we saw an example of the latter, playing out on a national stage. Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian also notes a telling detail about Bloomberg’s anti-coal messaging:

He got New Yorkers to stop smoking and give up trans fats. Now maybe he can convince Americans to see coal as a danger to public health ““ at least Michael Bloomberg says that is the idea behind his $50m (£31m) gift to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

What it’s not about is making an argument based on climate change.

“If you don’t survive today, you are not going to be around for tomorrow,” he told me on Thursday, soon after announcing the gift from his philanthropic foundation.

“I don’t think there is any question that we are doing damage to the global environment but that gets you into an argument that is not necessary, and that the public has trouble thinking about,” he said.

Imagine that. Leaving climate change out of the argument. I wonder if the climate moralists will beat their chests in indignation, just as they did when President Obama chose the same approach.

UPDATE: In his official statement, Bloomberg also said this:

Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to our water, and the leading cause of climate disruption.

So perhaps it’s not accurate for me to say that he’s ignoring climate change altogether, but rather that he’s chosen not to emphasize it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, coal
  • Michael Tobis

    Defeating coal is not enough, of course. The arguments for defeating coal, more to the point, are probably not sufficient without the climate component.

    When Bloomberg says “”I don’t think there is any question that we are doing damage to the global environment but that gets you into an argument that is not necessary, and that the public has trouble thinking about” he is essentially accepting the incompetence of the public to think rationally, but he is also accepting that climate is part of the rational evidence. By acknowledging this incompetence he goes about perpetuating it.

    I would much rather we learned how to think collectively, rather than developing political elites which compete on manipulating the public via competing proxy arguments that have emotional saliency but lack rational merit.

    I suppose if we can slow down coal deployment in the meantime, that’s a better thing than the other way round. But it leaves us open for manipulation the next time and the time after that.
     

  • grypo

    You can change the coal industry to be safer toward public health and still emit CO2.  This does not solve the problem, it only adds to the idea that it isn’t really a problem.  Coal can be cleaner and still change the composition of the atmosphere.  It’s also a problem is the replacement, ie tar sands, is no better.  So the goal really needs to be shutting down plants and replacing with nuclear or renewable, not a compromise on just reducing soot.  I hope Bloomberg sticks to it.

  • Keith Kloor

    Michael,
    I have added an update in the post that should cheer your heart. 

    As to your counterpoint, I just think Bloomberg is being canny and pragmatic in de-emphasizing climate change in this particular coal campaign. if the public health argument is strong enough and who besides the coal industry can deny that, then why not make that the central plank of the campaign? 

  • NewYorkJ

    OT:

    Some possible good news from BBC.  False Balance exposed in an independent report.  BBC pledges to do something about it.  We’ll see.

    The BBC is to revamp its science coverage after an independent review highlighted weaknesses and concluded that journalists boosted the apparent controversy of scientific news stories such as climate change, GM crops and the MMR vaccine by giving too much weight to fringe scientific viewpoints.

    The criticism was particularly relevant to stories on issues such as global warming, GM and the MMR vaccine, where minority views were sometimes given equal weighting to broad scientific consensus, creating what the report describes as “false balance”.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/jul/20/bbc-climate-change-science-coverage

     

  • Keith Kloor

    I’m aware of this report (it’s making the rounds) but would like to read in full when I have a chance in coming days.

    just as an aside I don’t keep up with the European coverage of MMR and GMO, but while googling around on the GM issue in Europe, I was astonished by the sea of anti-GMO websites that popped up during my search. It really seems to be continent wide. 

  • Sashka

    @ MT

    I would much rather we learned how to think collectively

    I would much rather continue thinking on my own, thank you very much.

  • Paul Kelly

    “The arguments for defeating coal, more to the point, are probably not sufficient without the climate component”. Nonsense. The non climate arguments predate climate, are more widely agreed to than climate and address more immediate and certain problems than climate.

    Bloomberg is insisting on the variety of valid reasons framing. He does not discount the validity of climate concerns. The fact is climate is unnecessary in an argument where public health and environmental concerns are already persuasive.

    I, too would much rather we learned how to think collectively. We have the opportunity to act collectively. It’s the 15th wedge, focused, aggregated individual action. It is a paradigm shift. Irrelevant communication models and dependence on political majorities are out. Deployment and cooperation are in.

  • edG

    “So perhaps it’s not accurate for me to say that he’s ignoring climate change altogether, but rather that he’s chosen not to emphasize it.”

    That would have been the wise thing to do from Day One, or at least until the science actually was ‘settled.’

    But one needs a global problem to justify a global project so the UN Watermelons couldn’t play it that way, and one needs a Big Scare to herd the lemmings.

    On coal:

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/07/13/germany-to-shovel-climate-fund-dollars-into-coal-plants/

    No need to provide links of the growth of coal use by India or China I suppose. Or to mention that Poland is resisting all the EU ranting about coal use. Or to explain how many zillion wind turbines would be required to replace the coal use.

    The ONLY alternative means of providing large amounts of reliable energy, other than natural gas, is nuclear.

    Oh well. Looks like the Sierra Lawyer’s Club franchise of Big Green Inc. just got a nice payoff from a guy with similar ethics.

      

  • Michael Tobis

    In reply to:

    I would much rather we learned how to think collectively
    Sashka says:
    I would much rather continue thinking on my own, thank you very much.

    Sashka, I am sorry you if have been exposed to an awful system, really. I have had family members in the same situation. I do not wish to make light of it.

    But democracy is built on a presumption that collective reasonableness can be achi8eved.

    There is no collective thinking without free individual thought. But free individual thought is not enough in a democracy. Competent democratic consensus must emerge. At present the democratic consensus process is incompetent (*). To sell good policy on the basis of bad arguments increases the vulnerability to bad arguments. It is a collective responsibility to ensure that good arguments prevail. It is an individual responsibility to work toward that outcome.

    (* = Unlike the scientific consensus process, which is reasonably robust, lest someone jump down my throat about that.)
     

  • jeffn

    So. Mayor Bloomberg “got New Yorkers to stop smoking” did he?
    There seems to be no end to what a politician can do with a stroke of the pen. Why doesn’t mayor mike simply ban the use of any energy produced by coal (or oil)? I mean, it’s only a matter of political will, right?

    Actually there is a parallel here. Just as Mike’s “ban” moved smokers from the bar stools to the street, Kyoto and the like is designed to move the emitters from America to China. But then they can say they “stopped” AGW.

  • mitchel44

    “Unlike the scientific consensus process, which is reasonably robust, lest someone jump down my throat about that”

    Could you direct me to the paper describing how that process works?

    Thanks.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Good that you would like to read the report on the BBC Keith, perhaps you might do the same with Nisbet’s red herring?

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    FWIW, the first problem with coal is the hell it plays with the coal miners’ health.

  • Ian

    Michael Tobis Says:
    July 22nd, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Competent democratic consensus must emerge. At present the democratic consensus process is incompetent.

    In what respects is the democratic concensus process incompetant at present?

  • Keith Kloor

    @12

    Read it and agree with the folks that wrote this editorial:

    “A report published this week in the United States does an excellent job of probing the reasons for this [climate policy] stalemate, and shines light on some uncomfortable truths. It should be essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate-change debate.”

    But if it makes you feel better, Eli, keep your head planted firmly under that rock.
     

  • JD Ohio

    The problem with traditional rants against coal (basically similar to the comments here) is that they fail to balance the detriments of coal with its positive contributions.  For instance, there are elderly people alive this summer who would have died without coal powered air conditioning.  Considering past winters, there are many people who didn’t freeze to death because of the availability of coal powered heat.

    JD

  • harrywr2

    @Eli,
    <i>Coal miners health</i>

    Life expectancy loss by activity table here-
    http://www.me.utexas.edu/~ans/Pro/lle.html

    Being a coal miner lops 1100 days off of average life expectancy. Being poor lops off 700 days. The median income for a coal miner is $60K per year.

     

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    There are a lot of unemployed coal miners with black lung.

     

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and 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.

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