I’ve been a bit tortured over this climate endeavor. On the one hand, it involves some really smart people who are bringing the insights of evolutionary biology and social science into the climate change discussion. I’ve found this immensely helpful in my own thinking about the sociopolitical dynamics of the climate debate.
But on the other hand, I’ve been discomfited by the framework for the Climate, Mind, and Behavior Project, or rather the way it mixes activists with researchers at its annual symposium. Despite my misgivings, I’ve enjoyed the two events I’ve attended and walked away with favorable impressions of numerous speakers. I guess I just prefer stricter boundaries at such affairs.
Anyway, I try to sort through my ambivalence at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.
If you are a member of the climate concerned community, you are likely distressed by the recent turn of events. One of your best known warriors has badly blundered, resulting in an important (if temporary) PR victory for your opponents. The fallout has been worsened by some of your most zealous allies, who have either excused the blunder or, incredibly, twisted it into an act of valor.
What should distress you even more is that, before this PR nightmare, the momentum had started to swing your way. Or rather, your opponents were helping you make your case.
Let’s review. In the last six months, several events have elevated climate change into the headlines in a way that has cast climate skeptics/contrarians in a negative light. Remember, politics at its worst is all about who has the higher negatives and we know that climate change has become politicized–very much for the worst.
First, there has been the periodic jostling among Republican Presidential contenders on climate-related issues, with the loudest of them asserting that climate science is a big hoax. How does this fringe view play to moderate Republicans and Independents? We can probably judge by Jon Huntsman’s one meaningful contribution to the campaign. So while there may be tepid public support for action on climate change, it doesn’t follow that a large percentage of the electorate thinks climate science is bogus. Such extreme rhetoric, which has become the GOP position on climate change, has marginal appeal beyond its Tea Party base. Generally speaking, it probably harms Republicans more than it helps them. Last April, months before Huntsman bowed out of the GOP presidential campaign, he warned his party:
The minute the Republican party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 out of 100 climate scientists from what the National Academy of Scientists said on what is causing climate change, and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science and in a losing position.
Well, that minute has long since arrived. Republicans now have a problem on their hands when it comes to science.
Another revealing moment, for those paying attention to the larger climate change discourse, came after the release of a widely anticipated analysis of temperature data that, as the Economist wrote, “leaves little room for doubters. The world is warming.” Richard Muller, the climate skeptic-friendly physicist who led the study, confirmed the findings in a WSJ op-ed:
Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.
Regardless, the story that played out in the media was that a major critic of climate science had overseen a study proving that global warming was real. A widely covered event like this, combined with the GOP’s hardening rejection of climate science and dismissal of global warming, reinforced the narrative that U.S. conservatives have willfully put their “heads in the sand.”
Climate scientists and activists don’t appear to have recognized this impression that climate skeptics and Republicans are creating in the public’s mind. If the former can be accused of hyperbole in service of their cause, then so can the latter, and it is their brand of hyperbole that has been dominating the national conversation, making them look out of step with the mainstream. By no means is this limited to the Republican stance on climate change. As Maureen Dowd notes in her weekend column, the remaining GOP Presidential candidates
are tripping over one another trying to be the most radical, unreasonable and insane candidate they can be. They pounce on any traces of sanity in the other candidates “” be it humanity toward women, compassion toward immigrants or the willingness to make the rich pay a nickel more in taxes “” and try to destroy them with it.
Surveying the latest damage resulting from all the fiery talk on contraception and religious doctrine, Dowd writes:
Republicans are getting queasy at the gruesome sight of their party eating itself alive, savaging the brand in ways that will long resonate.
“Republicans being against sex is not good,” the G.O.P. strategist Alex Castellanos told me mournfully. “Sex is popular.”
Yeah, I’d say they stand a better chance being against science. But it appears that at least one of the candidates is doubling down on the notion that he can ride a retrograde plank on social issues all the way to the nomination. Good luck with that! Democrats, you can be assured, will not stand in his way. They are also plenty happy to let the remaining GOP candidates continue slugging away at each other.
This latest Tom Toles cartoon illustrates a maxim in politics: If your opponent is hurting himself, you stay out of the way.
With respect to the climate change war, it’s too late for Peter Gleick to learn that lesson. Perhaps some of the saner heads in the climate community will remember that their vocal opponents are also afflicted with “climate change derangement syndrome.” In this war, the side that strikes the general public as least deranged is the one that probably helps its side the most.
UPDATE: I just saw this mind-blowing Guardian column, which suggests that “perhaps more climate scientists should play dirty.”
In the comments, Richard Betts is incredulous:
I am a climate scientist at the Met Office Hadley Centre and also a lead author with the IPCC (NB. the opinions I express here are my own though – I am just telling you that for context).
I would ask you to refrain from bringing my profession into disrepute by advocating that we act unethically. We already have enough people accusing us, completely incorrectly, of being frauds, green / left-wing activists or government puppets. A rabble-rousing journalist such as yourself telling us that we should “fight dirty” does not help our reputation at all. “Fighting dirty” will never be justified no matter what tactics have been used to discredit us in the past.
Inflammatory remarks such as yours will only serve to further aggravate the so-called “climate wars”. People’s reputations are already being damaged, and we know that some climate scientists get highly distasteful and upsetting mail through no fault of their own. If people like you continue to stir things up further, it is only a matter of time before somebody actually gets hurt, or worse.
Please keep your advice to yourself, we can do without it thank you very much.
If you’re following the Peter Gleick/Heartland Institute saga, you know this story likely has a few more twists and turns. Or as journalist Marc Gunther puts it:
This story will get worse before it gets better. There remains the sticky problem of a “climate strategy” memo which appears to be a forgery, for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that it includes mistakes about Heartland that no insider would make. (See McArdle for the details. ) Even before Gleick confessed, his critics suggested that he forged the climate memo; it’s written in a style similar to his, and identifies him as a nemesis of the climate deniers, thus inflating his own importance. Gleick says that he got the strategy memo in the mail, and that was what prompted him to lie to pry the other documents out of Heartland. That story strains credulity, to put it mildly.
Indeed. And now there is rampant speculation in the blogosphere that Gleick is the author of the memo. Even Shawn Lawrence Otto has joined the parlor game:
Gleick says it [the strategy memo] was anonymously mailed to him. Perhaps this was by a whistleblower, or perhaps it was by an disgruntled insider. Or perhaps it was a honeypot – a sweet trap designed to compromise or discredit Gleick by getting him to write about it, while Heartland could trumpet how it is not authentic – in which case it would seem Gleick turned the tables by posing as a board member and requesting – and receiving – a cache of authentic Heartland documents.
Personally, I have a hard time believing that a Heartland insider would mail such a document to Gleick, instead of, say, a reporter. And to my mind, the memo has a fishy quality to it, for all the reasons Megan McArdle has laid out. In a separate post, she has also worked through the leaps of logic required to believe Gleick’s explanation:
You receive an anonymous memo in the mail purporting to be the secret climate strategy of the Heartland Institute. It is not printed on Heartland Institute letterhead, has no information identifying the supposed author or audience, contains weird locutions more typical of Heartland’s opponents than of climate skeptics, and appears to have been written in a somewhat slapdash fashion. Do you:A. Throw it in the trashB. Reach out to like-minded friends to see how you might go about confirming its provenanceC. Tell no one, but risk a wire-fraud conviction, the destruction of your career, and a serious PR blow to your movement by impersonating a Heartland board member in order to obtain confidential documents.As a journalist, I am in fact the semi-frequent recipient of documents promising amazing scoops, and depending on the circumstances, my answer is always “A” or “B”, never “C”.
For those inclined to take Gleick at his word–that the memo was mailed to him by a Heartland insider–what do you make of Otto’s musing about about it being a Heartland set-up? Lastly, what would it take for Gleick himself to end all this speculation?
The Peter Gleick shocker is dominating conversation in many science circles this week. That’s understandable. It’s as if he emptied a can of lighter fluid on an already flammable climate debate.
To make matters worse, the most partisan and shrillest voices are fanning the flames in spectacular fashion, as they downplay/justify/praise Gleick’s action. It’s tribalism gone amok. I’ll have more to say on all this, plus some of the outstanding questions that remain, tomorrow. Meanwhile, the Atlantic’s Megan McArdle (her latest on the affair) has a must-read piece that touches all the right bases. Hers is a voice of reason, sanity, and perspective. She also probes some of the oddities of Gleick’s explanation that many of his sympathizers conveniently ignore or dismiss. In a normal world, that would be known as healthy skepticism.
Anyway, just before this crazy story got crazier with Gleick’s admission, I took stock (over at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media) of the “anti-science” meme that has become much propagated. I examined it in the context of recent remarks made by Nina Fedoroff, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
I wrote that it was important to recognize “that unscientific thinking on numerous issues clouds the minds of both liberals and conservatives.” Have a read and let me know what you think.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the Heartland Institute “found itself duped out of several confidential fundraising documents that were then distributed widely over the Internet, offering a glimpse of its priorities.”
This was true.
The LA Times, noting that the Heartland Institute “pilloried climate scientists whose stolen emails were released in 2009 as part of the so-called Climategate flap,” also said:
Once in a while, there comes along a reason to believe in karma.
Well, as news of Peter Gleick’s confession suggests, karma is going around fast and furious these days. Gleick, a prominent climate and water scientist, and member of the National Academy of Sciences, has admitted to being the person who duped Heartland.
It’s the latest and most astonishing twist to the climate wars.
As Andy Revkin observes at Dot Earth, the fallout is likely to be extensive:
Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others. (Some of the released documents contain information about Heartland employees that has no bearing on the climate fight.) That is his personal tragedy and shame (and I’m sure devastating for his colleagues, friends and family).
The broader tragedy is that his decision to go to such extremes in his fight with Heartland has greatly set back any prospects of the country having the “rational public debate” that he wrote “” correctly “” is so desperately needed.
In a similar vein, American University’s Matthew Nisbet writes:
The incident is the latest in an escalating spiral of polarizing warfare between self-described “Climate Hawks” and so-called Climate Deniers. Caught in the cross-fire are the great majority of scientists and members of the public who yearn to work together in their communities, regions, and nationally to find common ground.
Such common ground will now be even harder to achieve. Gleick’s action will only reinforce the negative spiral of the public’s climate discourse. The reaction from climate scientists and the climate activist community will be closely watched and either further cement the partisanship or help repair it.
Early indications are not positive. Desmogblog, which has played a primary role in disseminating the Heartland documents, is hailing Gleick as a hero.
Whistleblowers – and that’s the role Gleick has played in this instance – deserve respect for having the courage to make important truths known to the public at large. Without condoning or promoting an act of dishonesty, it’s fair to say that Gleick took a significant personal risk – and by standing and taking responsibility for his actions, he has shown himself willing to pay the price. For his courage, his honor, and for performing a selfless act of public service, he deserves our gratitude and applause.
This rationalization (not to mention the incorrect use of whistleblower) boggles the mind. If climate activists follow Desmogblog’s lead, the climate debate will sink to even lower depths, which I had previously thought was impossible.
One last thought, for the moment. Peter Gleick’s statement in the Huffington Post raises as many questions as it answers. I suspect that this story will have a few more twists and turns in the coming days and weeks.
Several weeks ago, I wrote that the climate discourse was “trapped in a negative feedback loop.” The two extremes on the spectrum, I said, reinforced each other via their “separate echo chambers.”
A strong characteristic of this dynamic, which many have lamented (and just as many have dismissed) is tribalism. The reaction to the Heartland disclosures/leak/theft/fabrication is thus far utterly tribal, at least judging by the comment threads in the climate blogosphere. This face-off between the tribes produces a caricature of the two sides that one commenter at Bad Astronomy has captured well:
I don’t want to speculate on specific right or left wing agenda’s, my point is that currently climate science gets hi jacked by both the right or the left. It is as if atmospheric dynamics are somehow directly linked (teleconnected one might say) to the political persuation of the particular debater. We see it all the time”¦”¦ “what you question CAGW? you must be some sort of right wing creationist nutjob in the pay of BIG OIL!” or “What you believe all that global warming guff? you must be some sort of tree hugging, crystalgazing, unemployed leftie!!” The actual arguments (good and bad) get lost in the political/social/religious sterotyping. You see it here all the time ( have even done it myself on occasion) and you see it on just about every climate blog.
The New York Times covers the developing Heartland Institute story:
Leaked documents suggest that an organization known for attacking climate science is planning a new push to undermine the teaching of global warming in public schools, the latest indication that climate change is becoming a part of the nation’s culture wars.
It’ll be interesting to see where this particular story goes. As the Times also mentions,
Heartland did declare one two-page document to be a forgery, although its tone and content closely matched that of other documents that the group did not dispute.
The supposed fake would be the one titled “Confidential Memo: 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy.” In my first post on this story, I didn’t refer to or quote from this “memo” because, quite frankly, something smelled fishy about it. I found the language in some passages a bit odd. (I’ll perhaps elaborate in a future post.) Indeed, I wasn’t comfortable discussing the specifics in any of the documents until they could be verified. That said, I found it plausible that a disgruntled insider was the source of the presumed leak.
But Heartland now asserts that all of the documents (except the one it says is fabricated)
were obtained by an unknown person who fraudulently assumed the identity of a Heartland board member and persuaded a staff member here to “re-send” board materials to a new email address.
As for that “climate strategy” memo, David Appell compared its metadata to that of the other eight documents and says:
The “fake” memo definitely looks suspicious.
If that memo is confirmed to be a fake, then I’m confused as to why someone would risk distracting away from the disclosures of the authentic documents. The authentic content made public provides plenty of fodder in of itself. Why not just let the real docs speak for themselves?
In the end, arguing about whether it is fake or not is not entirely unlike arguing about whether climategate emails are the work of an whistle-blower or a crook. It’s all rather beside the point.
The details of any of the Heartland documents are far less important, IMO, than the larger-scale implications. The larger-scale implications are nothing new, but I do find it important that in watching the responses from “skeptics,” I have yet to see one, one single solitary, lonely little response where a [climate] “skeptic” expresses even one iota of concern that the documents show a systematic and explicit effort to politicize climate science, and even more, politicize the teaching of climate science to children.
UPDATE: The Heartland Institute has responded. See bottom of this post for an excerpt.
Somebody sent the Heartland Institute a wicked Valentine. It was probably meant for Joseph Bast, Heartland’s President and CEO. Based on my reading of the leaked documents, I’m thinking that a recently fired employee or someone still there is not feeling a lot of love for Bast and the way he runs his organization.
The whistleblower/insider sent an email around to a bunch of folks yesterday, which got forwarded to me. While the documents have been disseminated on the internet, nobody reporting on this appears to have mentioned the accompanying email:
Dear Friends (15 of you):In the interest of transparency, I think you should see these files from the Heartland Institute. Look especially at the 2012 fundraising and budget documents, the information about donors, and compare to the 2010 990 tax form. But other things might also interest or intrigue you. This is all I have. And this email account will be removed after I send.
It both corroborates and is corroborated by the leaked Heartland documents, which reinforce Mashey’s conclusion that Heartland is a for-profit public relations and lobbying firm that is operating with non-profit status by misrepresenting the nature of its activities in its own tax filings.
I haven’t read Mashy’s audit yet, but after having plowed through the (presumably real) Heartland documents posted online, I wouldn’t be surprised if the IRS is moved to do its own audit of the Heartland Institute, or at the very least revisit the organization’s 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
Meanwhile, the way Heartland goes about its propaganda mission (as revealed by the docs) is already providing much fodder for the climate wars.
UPDATE: The Heartland Institute, in response, claims:
Yesterday afternoon, two advocacy groups posted online several documents they claimed were The Heartland Institute’s 2012 budget, fundraising, and strategy plans. Some of these documents were stolen from Heartland, at least one is a fake, and some may have been altered.
Well this story just got a whole lot more interesting.
In recent years, when the U.S. was mired in two wars that seemed to be ignored by the public at large, some politicos and pundits talked about resurrecting the military draft. As you can guess, the idea didn’t gain any traction. We Americans prefer to outsource our wars to willing volunteers.
But what about some other form of national service program with a civic-minded goal? Matthew Nisbet discusses an intriguing idea:
Like climate change or poverty, political polarization in the United States may itself be a “wicked” problem, not something we are going to solve or end over the next decade, but rather something we will need to address, manage, and adapt to via a diversity of approaches.
Introducing a national service program for high school graduates may be one such effective approach. Here’s why.
A major enabler of political polarization, as chronicled by journalist Bill Bishop in his book “The Big Sort,” is the problem of geographical balkanization. We have always tended to associate and socialize with people who share our world-views and that tendency has accelerated over the last two decades.
This is especially the case among the college-educated who are the most attentive to politics and have the best developed mental map for how to consistently interpret new events, elections, and issues through an ideological lens. The college-educated based on their affluence and geographic mobility have gravitated to neighborhoods and regions of the country where they increasingly live with others who vote and think about politics like they do.
Nisbet goes on to say that what’s missing “is cross-talk, conversations and interactions that build trust, empathy, and understanding for the other side. Instead, our images of the other are dominated by narratives from our like minded media sources, narratives that are too often outrage fueled rants about the other.”
The idea of a civics-oriented national service program is new to me. But Nisbet says it has been floated by liberals and conservatives alike. Here’s how he describes what it would look like:
The program would send graduates to politically and socially dissimilar communities to engage in AmeriCorps or Teach for America-style community service. In these regions, graduates would work with others from a mix of political and social backgrounds and live and engage with communities not like theirs.
It kinda sounds like a domestic version of the foreign exchange student program. Instead of young American students going abroad to experience a different culture, they would just go to another part of their own country. Interesting concept. Might something like this help reduce political polarization?