Is there a Green Scare?

By Keith Kloor | March 21, 2012 2:46 pm

Before I get to that question, ask yourself this: What does the climate debate have to do with WMD’s (weapons of mass destruction) and the Iraq war? Tom Fuller offers an answer on this recent thread:

One of the saddest consequences of 9/11 was the wholesale manipulation of both the media and public opinion to generate support for a war of choice in Iraq.

What’s even sadder is the fact that the climate consensus adopted the same strategy wholesale.

A lively exchange then ensued, revisiting the Bush Administration’s rationale for deposing Saddam Hussein. One commenter said:

Now, I don’t think WMD’s were the best justification for the war in Iraq.  I rather much prefer the idea that we were bringing democracy and freedom to a part of the world that knew it not (trite, I know, but I’m from the south).  That bringing these things to the middle east would benefit us in the long term.  This kind of thinking requires vision; I suppose Bush chose to sell a simpler “˜narrative’ instead.

This led me to wonder about another possible climate parallel: The use of a simpler (and similarly fear-inducing) narrative (climate doom) to make a case for action on global warming. This is, in fact, the dominant narrative favored by climate activists, but it hasn’t fared as well as the selling of the Iraq war. Some are now trying a different tack.

On that thread, I noted that climate skeptics who normally disapprove of rhetoric that made selective use of facts or pushed a simplistic story to advance a climate agenda didn’t seem all that bothered when the same tactics were used to sell the Iraq war. A few people still clung to the notion that “there is no evidence” for deception by the Bush Administration in the way it made its case for war with Iraq.

To which I replied:

Yes, I suppose cherrypicking intelligence, reliance on dubious sources (aka curveball), a certain slide presentation before the UN (which the presenter later said would be a permanent blot on his record) had nothing to do with it.

I’m kinda surprised that no climate skeptics immediately seized on an obvious parallel I was handing to them, gift-wrapped.

Instead, focus remained on Iraq and conjecture by some about why Bush went down the path he did and the relative merits of it:

However, on spinning the web of “truths” to infer a direct link between Iraq and and 9/11 to the American public”¦I think they [the Bush Administration] went way over the top, and did it because they needed more support for the effort”¦

Still, was that “good politics” or “deception”?

In response, I said:

I guess that question depends on the context. Clearly it’s not okay for climate advocates to use such a strategy. Right?  But to make a case for war”¦

Meanwhile, on the same thread, one reader picked up on the assertion (made by me) that the media failed abysmally during the pre-Iraq war debate, and argued:

The media has similar failures in the US’s involvement in South America over the past 50 years.  The media was late on Vietnam.

The truth is that the military, the administration, and the powers that be can never be honest about why we go to war and what interests we are protecting.  If they did, they’d never generate enough support and risk undermining the effort.  The goal is to develop a feasible narrative that will hold long enough to finish the job.

To which another commenter, noting the complex, incremental nature of geopolitics, responded:

The media generally doesn’t very do well with “˜slow motion’ changes.

Well, that calls for another climate parallel–this one of  media coverage of climate change and the difficulty journalists have with a slow-moving phenomena.

This theme of the media’s role during emotionally charged periods in American history spurred some additional exchanges on that thread. Regarding episodes of U.S. military intervention in the last hundred years, a reader noted (my emphasis):

What stands out in each instance, but never stands the test of time, is the narrative sold by the administration (although Congress must declare war, it is the Commander in chief and the Pentagon who drive the agenda).  Vietnam and our multiple manipulations of South America were part of the red-scare, Iraq was terrorist scare, etc.  Not only do they find ways to entice our fears, they also find ways to gin up our feelings of comradeship and nationalism.

This got me wondering if there was another potential climate/environmental parallel: That of a green scare.

No doubt, a strong case can be made that the environmental community has been promoting a catastrophic narrative since the 1960s. Think overpopulation, species extinction, and now global warming, to cite just a few examples. The question, in my mind, is not whether the various environmental issues over the last 40 years have been legitimate concerns, but whether the projected dire outcomes attributed to them were/are based on reasoned, scientific evidence, or hyperbole and selective data.

My sense, as a long-time observer of these debates, is that the answer is a combination of both, but that science and hype have gone hand in hand. Climate change is a good example. The basic science behind it is not in question, as far as I’m concerned, but some aspects, such as climate sensitivity and feedbacks and the projected impacts, are still hotly debated. These outstanding questions don’t make climate change to be a less worrisome issue, but because it is a slow-moving event that can’t be felt at an individually discernible level, many climate activists have ratcheted up the rhetoric to make their case for action.

But climate change doesn’t strike people as an immediate existential threat, the way images of mushroom clouds do. That’s where the parallels between WMD’s and the climate debate end.

So if there is a green scare, 1) it’s lost its bite after 40 years, and 2) it doesn’t work as well with unclear threats that are distant in time.

  • Tom Fuller

    Good post. More like this, please!

    I think it’s important to note that the actors hyping extreme scenarios are not usually the scientists, as far as global warming is concerned. It appears to me that the communications sections of large NGOs are far more to blame for things like polar bears on ice flows, exaggerating what is discussed in the literature (African agriculture, malaria, ad nauseum) and calls to action (GreenPeace ‘we know where you live’, NoPressure, polar bears fall from the sky like rain…).

    Until the scientists divorce themselves from those trying to use them as cover, they will be in as much trouble as David Kelly in the UK, El Baradei in Iraq and Richard Clark in the U.S.  

  • grypo

    Green scares a more disparate then US foreign policy.  Plus the examples you give are still on the table to varying degree and effect us in different parts of the world presently.  That’s good enough for me to consider it “scary” going into the future.  It’s probably better termed green concern, but because of the delayed effects, to be comparable to scares used to generate wars, it would need to be a scare now.  

    We had this exact conversation over a year ago about Iraq War scare and the time-spatial problems with generating real concern now for a problem, that although it is caused now, effects us only later.  A commenter who had a good understanding of how fear works helped me understand the phenomenon better, as I recall.

    “whether the projected dire outcomes attributed to them were/are based on reasoned, scientific evidence, or hyperbole and selective data.”

    You need to be specific here.  

  • Jarmo

    Kind of hard to get excited about something that will happen way after you’ve kicked the bucket. Possibly after your children have kicked the bucket. 

    Far easier to get excited about somebody trying to pick your pocket right now to fight future threats of unknown quantity. 

  • BBD


    The basic science behind it is not in question, as far as I’m concerned, but some aspects of it, such as climate sensitivity and feedbacks and the projected impacts, are still hotly debated.

    The basic science includes the view that there are major positive feedbacks (eg water vapour; ice/snow albedo) and climate sensitivity at equilibrium is most likely to be about 3C. There may be hot debate in some quarters about these things, but it’s not mainstream.

    The only reason people ‘ratchet up the rhetoric’ is because of the cacophony of unsupported opinion from the contrarians to the effect that CS is low, feedbacks are negative etc.

    I hesitated before saying this, but it is important and deserves clarification at the outset.

  • jeffn

    “These outstanding questions don’t make climate change to be a less worrisome issue, but precisely because it is a slow-moving event that can’t be felt at an individually discernible level, many climate activists have sought to ratchet up their rhetoric to make a case for addressing it.”
    That’s one possibility, the other is that you need a big scare story to sell a big dumb idea. The real difference on the war is that Clinton thought it was a small enough threat to sling a few cruise missiles a few times, Bush thought it was big enough to send in armored divisions. You disagree with Bush (and are silent on Clinton), that’s your right, but the fact is that both men used the same threat information.
    It has nothing to do with how long global warming will take. If you want to do something truly stupid about global warming- Joe Romm’s “windmills and rationing” or Grist’s “abandon capitalism” – you have to have a real damn good reason. And yeah, I think Romm and Grist’s “solutions” to global warming are way, way, way stupider than sending the tanks in to Baghdad.

  • Fred

    Keith has put his finger on a prime characteristic of the green narrative for decades – the induction of fear. This was true for banning DDT, chlorofluorocarbons, and now for reducing CO2 emissions at astronomical economic cost.

    Making people anxious is a classic means of controlling them. Fortunately, many people are seeing through this manipulative ploy.

  • RickA

    BBD #4:

    We don’t know what CS is.  Just this year alone, several papers have come out with different CS ranges.  I am sure papers will continue to be written with different CS ranges.  This is evidence that in fact CS is still the subject of debate and we do not know what CS is.  

    Continually stating as fact that CS at equilibrium is most likely to be about 3 C doesn’t make it so.  It may turn out to be 1.8 C, it may turn out to be 3.9C.

    As to feedbacks, while there are certainly both negative and positive feedbacks (nobody disputes that), we don’t know what they net out to.

  • harrywr2

    The fundamental problem with ‘spinning’ for long term policy purposes is that eventually the ‘truth gets it’s shoes on’.
    From a ‘practical’ point of view…a policy that needs to stay in place for decades can’t be predicated on ‘spin’ . The shelf life of ‘spin’ is too short.
    We replace our primary glorious leader every 4-8 years. By that time they’ve used up whatever credibility they had spinning whatever policy’s they felt strongly about.(I would note I would like the health care plan I was supposed to be able to keep back…I know it was just a little white lie that I would get to keep my existing health care plan)
    The problem with the’ Climate Concerned Community’ is that they ‘circle the wagons’ around the ‘leaders’ whose credibility has been somewhat tainted rather then throw them under the bus.

  • Dan Moutal

    Is this really a valid comparison?

    We need to be careful to avoid false equivalence here. In regards to WMD the fear being sold was mostly bunk, in regards to climate change there is real reason to be fearful of what a future climate could bring.

    Even if we don’t know exactly what the future climate has in store.

    Even if some people overstate some scenarios.  

  • Dan Moutal

    Note in reference to my above comment, I am not excusing those who overstate certain scenarios, only stating that the fact that even though some people do overstate things it doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about.

    It’s like speeding down the highway at night with no headlights, and screaming “we are all going to die for sure!!!”  Obviously that is a overstatement, you might get into a horrible accident and die, but you might not. Yet there is still a valid reason to be very worried.

  • Tom Scharf

    I think the green scare only resonates well with young people….

    …because us middle agers and older have been there, done that with the greens already.

    Your list of previous scares all have a common link, which is a plausible sounding theory, which didn’t prove out in the long run.  

    My first bugaboo experience when I was a teenager was the food chain scare.  The theory went that if one species went extinct, that the resulting gap in the food chain would cause a chain reaction and thus cause a huge number of animal extinctions.  Therefore…we must work crazy hard to prevent even one extinction from occurring.

    Most of these scares are founded on a perception that our environment is on a knife edge of stability, and that a little breath one way or the other will send it into screaming instability and doom.  The reality is much more likely that  the forces at work are much larger and stable than we imagine.  Life is very powerful and only those that are good at adaption have survived thus far.  

    The other side of the story is witness our inability to actually change the environment when we willfully try to do so.  Exterminate mosquitoes, fire ants, roaches…nope.  Remove non-native invasive species from the environment…nope.  Kill all the weeds in our lawn…nope.  Common cold…nope.  Flu…nope.  Cancer….nope.  AIDS…nope.  Polio, black death…yes!  Hey….can’t lose them all.

  • Tom Scharf

    BBD #4:

    “…unsupported opinion from the contrarians to the effect that CS is low, feedbacks are negative etc.”

    Yeah, well there is that and the fact that the actual measured temperature record doesn’t support your high CS.  Oops.

    But we all know that you wouldn’t be bringing that “loose end” up.

  • Martha

    “This is, in fact, the dominant narrative favored by climate activists”

    No.  There are actually a number of “˜dominant narratives’;  and the United States is not the rest of the world. 

    The dominant narrative favoured by many climate activists is the one where people are aware and concerned for the impacts already being experienced in other parts of the world.

  • grypo

    The analogy is somewhat useful but the real problem is that it cheapens the point about longstanding US policy and how it generates support for what are horrible atrocities across the planet, some obvious and other more covert.  Yeah, sure, activists of all stripes ratchet up the facts to get other to engage in their issue, or perhaps lay out some outer bound risk, but the end game isn’t war.  War has special place.  It has known unjustifiable results, that don’t really compare to getting folks to discuss carbon taxes.

    When the most powerful administration with the most powerful death machine lies to start wars like Iraq, lies to get involved in Panama, puts out propaganda like the Creel Commission did, supports bloody regimes like Pinochet, interferes in Vietnam (then extends it unnecessarily), etc etc etc. we are discussing something so different, I’m afraid its not real comparison and only undermines the thoughtful discussion happening in the previous thread.  It works on some level, but  the level is pretty much the same as any activist in any policy fight.    

  • BBD

    Tom Scharf

    But we all know that you wouldn’t be bringing that “loose end” up.

    No, because I’ve dealt with it already. And you were present on that thread, so why are you bringing up a dead sceptic ‘argument’ again?

  • Jack Hughes

    Meanwhile in Germany…

    “The energy-saving light bulb ends up as hazardous waste, too much insulation promotes mold and household drains are emitting a putrid odor because everyone is saving water. Many of Germany’s efforts to protect the environment are a chronic failure, but that’s unlikely to change.  

    Germans support protecting the environment, and they have a special relationship with nature. They like animals and plants, blue skies and the ocean. They want their children to grow up in an intact environment, and try to set an example for others. When it’s time to save the world, the Germans are there, doing their utmost. They are determined that conservation efforts won’t fail because of them.
    Our newest goal is to minimize our ecological footprint. Thursdays are veggie days, and old-fashioned, hand-cranked washing machines are back in vogue. Websites offer environmental tips for all kinds of situations, from cosmetics based on the phases of the moon to vibrators made of plastic without toxic chemical softeners. There are urns made of cornstarch and coffins made of cardboard, so that we can embark on our final journey in an environmentally correct manner — a final good deed before everything turns to compost.
    When something benefits the environment, the need to justify it suddenly disappears. The green label eliminates all controversy. And political parties are essentially in agreement that society cannot do enough for the environment. No progressive politician wants to expose himself to the career-ending suspicion that he lacks environmental consciousness.
    Outcome Ignored

    Because environmental policy pursues noble goals, politicians who specialize in the environment have a moral advantage over those who deal with issues such as government finances, domestic security or pension contribution rates.”,1518,821396,00.html 

  • BBD

    It’s much easier to attack the greenies than to take on atmospheric physics, isn’t it?

    I mean I’m no ‘sceptic’, but I do find aspects of ‘green’ thinking confused, counter-productive and sometimes downright dangerous.

    But I’m not going to be led into conflating the soft targets of woolly ‘environmentalism’ with climate science.

    That is false equivalence.

  • Keith Kloor

    harrywr2 (8)

    Good points (tho I wasn’t aware that people are losing their existing health care plans because of the new law).

    Another similarity I might add is the Bushian “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. That’s the way it works with the climate cops of the blogosphere. See Romm’s latest broadside against Revkin, for example. 

    Dan (9)
    Climate scenarios are routinely overstated for effect. By all the big representative voices of the climate world. I don’t see a false equivalence at all, but I can appreciate grypo’s points in #14.

  • charlie

    Abosutely true.  And a lot is rooted in the history of eugenics, zero-pop, and fears of bangladeshi mobs coming in on tankers.

    And what is always interesting is how much some advocates push against incremental change.   Rather than finding a way to, say, get Americans to drive 1000 miles less.  The pushback against natural gas is an example.

    Enviornmentalism is at its best when it is local, and strongest when it is allied with other concerns.

  • harrywr2

    Keeping existing health plans
    Regence is the ‘blue shield’ of the Northwest.
    In general, we will not maintain ‘grandfathered’ status for individual products that are currently marketed.
    The ‘individual’ health insurance market is generally the self-employed and unemployed. The ‘newly’ unemployed aren’t eligible for grandfathering. Since they comprise the ‘bulk of the market’ it doesn’t make sense for insurance companies to maintain two sets of plans. The options in the ‘individual’ market have always been quite limited.


  • Lewis Deane

    I’m sorry, Keith, but you’ve got it back to front. Who is scaring whom?

     that climate scientists who normally disapprove of rhetoric that made selective use of facts or pushed a simplistic story to advance a climate agenda where all agast at these tactics when used to sell the Iraq war. But when it comes to their own science, it OK because there is a ’cause’ involved?

    Who is scaring whom? 

  • Lewis Deane

    ‘The question, in my mind, is not whether the various environmental issues over the last 40 years have been legitimate concerns, but whether the projected dire outcomes attributed to them were/are based on reasoned, scientific evidence, or hyperbole and selective data.’

    But they cannot be. A ‘catastrophic agenda’ is, by definition, not scientific but judgemental, an interpretation of the ‘interpretation’ that is ‘science’, a ‘mere’ ‘feeling’. Erlich was never right but emoted (he was also a ‘rightwinger’, by the way and not a ‘lefty’!)

  • Lewis Deane

    And you mean ‘rhetoric’ is never useful. And, beside, you confuse scientists with ‘activists’ but, no matter, for they do, too!

  • Bobito

    Using fear as a tactic to motivate people is the oldest trick in the political toolbox. The “but if we don’t act we will die, and our children and grand children will get it even worse!!!” stance is difficult to argue with because it allows passion to trump reason.

    So, how do we stop it from happening?  We call it out when we see it, and the media does a good job of this.  Unfortunately, the media tends to call out one side more than the other based on the source.  So a person that only monitors one side off the story will see all the BS being thrown by one side regularly, but never see it when their side is holding the shovel.

    Also, too many people consider “editorials” as “news”.  Most news shows and columns are “editorials” portraying an opinion, not a true “news” reporting of events.  This leads to “opinions” being considered “facts” far too often.  People need to be able to identify political motivation and filter the information accordingly.

  • Eli Rabett

    “I think the green scare only resonates well with young people”¦.”

    Maybe because they are the ones who are going to reap the whirlwind, of course, as recent events in the US show,  the whirlwind may be coming early this year.

  • kdk33

    OMG, you mean spring.  Now you’ve done it Eli!

    I bet all the young people get so scared that they head for the coast in a massive rush to leave the continent… or drink and have premarital sex, one,

  • JamesG

    So you argue that the media are no more than ever-willing scaremongers? Or is it just a consensus that are not skeptical enough?

  • Jonas N

    James GMedia are in the entertainment business. Even those segments labelled as ‘news’. They are competing for viewers, their numbers and attention. That is the primary goal. Never forget that … 

  • JamesG

    Too many people will come up with any dumb excuse to defend the indefensible before admitting they might have been mislead all these years.

  • harrywr2

    #25 the whirlwind may be coming early this year.Snow on the first day of Spring in the PNW convinced me that the ‘ice age’ has returned. Is that what you mean by whirlwind?

  • willard

    > Who is scaring whom?I smell a false dilemma behind that rhetorical question.

  • Jarmo

    Talking about extreme weather and AGW…. the floods of 2010 & 2011 and all those “climate refugees” was one of the scare stories of apocalyptic future.However, in all cases the most damaging human contributions found were the management of dams, building of canals and irrigation infrastructure that has exacerbated flooding…. same story in Queensland, Pakistan, India, Thailand and the US. 

  • Steve McIntyre

    Keith, you observe:

    “I noted that climate skeptics who normally disapprove of rhetoric that made selective use of facts or pushed a simplistic story to advance a climate agenda didn’t seem all that bothered when the same tactics were used to sell the Iraq war…I’m kinda surprised that no climate skeptics immediately seized on an obvious parallel I was handing to them, gift-wrapped.”

    I have used this analogy on a number of occasions from the earliest days of my interest in this topic.For example, in a 2006 CA post here:

    “In an emotional debate, I think that there’s an important role for
    analyzing individual arguments being relied upon. I’ve focused on the
    multiproxy studies and have come to the conclusion that all the
    hockey-stick studies are flawed and biased. De-constructing each
    individual study is very time-consuming. I view this exercise as not
    dissimilar to that of a pre-war analyst studying proxy evidence for WMD
    such as aluminum tubes. At the end of the day, an analyst is sometimes
    obliged to say that maybe an aluminum tube is just an aluminum tube.
    That does not mean that some other piece of evidence may not be valid ““
    only that the aluminum tube wasn’t.”

    In a 2007 post here:

    Back when views on Iraq were more evenly divided, I sometimes compared what I do to being a CIA analyst arguing that sometimes an aluminum tube is just an aluminum tube and not evidence of WMD. That wouldn’t mean that proponents of the war couldn’t argue the matter using different arguments or that the war was or wasn’t justified, or that the subsequent occupation of Iraq was or wasn’t botched. All it means is that policy-makers shouldn’t be basing their decisions on questionable information about aluminum tubes. This was a line of argument that used to rub right-wing people who liked part of my message the wrong way, but I hope that it says something about me.

    In another 2007 post here:

    There’s idea that there should be no scrutiny of “little things” because such scrutiny might divert from the “big” picture is appalling. That’s like a WMD argument (and I’ve sometimes compared what I do to being a CIA analyst trying to decide if an aluminum tube is just an aluminum tube.) A lot of the times if you look after the little things, the big things will look after themselves. You hear hockey coaches and basketball coaches talk about “attention to detail” as being the hallmark of good teams. If my criticisms of “little things” are correct, then people should attend to the “little things”. The “big picture” has nothing to do with it. Dendroclimatologists and other scientists have an obligation to look after the little things that they are responsible for: to ensure that their own studies are replicable and meet the best possible statistical standards; to worry about the things that you have control over.

    I used the Powell picture  here in a discussion entitled the Search for Climate WMD, satirizing a particular inane (non-Hockey Stick) analysis:

  • Keith Kloor


    Interesting. Thanks for pointing me to these posts. This is something I intend to write more about.

    Meanwhile, just curious about something on a related note. In the Iraq/WMD story, there are people with knowledge who came forward to splash cold water on all the hype/disinformation (Think Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame’s husband, to cite one individual.) There are others who now regret being accomplices, such as Colin Powell.

    Using this same analogy, are there, to your knowledge, any consensus scientists or members of the climate science community (other than Judith Curry) who have come out publicly to question/challenge the validity of any major climate science findings, such as the Hockey Stick?  

  • Steve McIntyre

    At AGU in 2006, in the wake of the NAS panel, two very prominent climate scientists came up to me and told me under drop-dead secrecy that they thought that our criticisms had pretty much killed Mannian+Team style temperature reconstructions and that progress in the field would require new and better proxies, which might take 10-15 years. They’ve never had the courage to say this in public.It amazes me that there was and remains such a level of intimidation that even senior scientists demanded secrecy.

  • BBD

    Steve McIntyre: I’ve always assumed that the reason the HS was so vigorously defended was because of the pressure maintained by the sceptics. The perception of insiders seems to be that the mainstream cannot afford to demonstrate any significant weakness or its opponents will make political and policy hay. Once the HS had been elevated to near-iconic status, it had to be defended – right or wrong – to the bitter end. The optics of abandoning it were just too horrible to contemplate.

  • harrywr2

    #36I’ve always assumed that the reason the HS was so vigorously defended was because of the pressure maintained by the sceptics.From ‘real climate’ term “Hockey Stick” was coined by the former head of NOAA’s
    Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Jerry Mahlman, to describe the
    pattern common to numerous proxy and model-based estimates
    of Northern
    Hemisphere mean temperature changes over the past millenniumSo if I intrepret that paragraph correctly…the models and proxy reconstructions both tended to produce hocky sticks would which be a good indication that the models were correct.If the actual proxy reconstructions diverge from the models then something has a problem.

  • Steve McIntyre

    I wouldn’t place a whole lot of weight on the quote in #37.  Most modeling enterprises don’t attempt to reconcile to proxy reconstructions.

  • BBD

    harrywr2: there are plenty of unbroken hockey sticks to consider when reviewing the causes of climate change over the C20th.


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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.


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