Climate Symbolism

By Keith Kloor | February 4, 2013 6:38 am

Do you remember the famous “just say no” public service ads from the 1980s–the commercials that urged kids to say no to drugs? (There was also a spin-off “just say no” to premarital sex.) I think many of us can agree that the basic idea was well meaning. And naive and simplistic.

The just say no to the Keystone XL pipeline message that climate activists and enviros are rallying around today has the same feel. The campaign is similarly well-intentioned but–like the vacuous anti-drug messaging from the 1980s–it also distracts from the complexities of the problem, as numerous critics have pointed out.

I’ve always contended (and still do) that these critics miss an important aspect of the Keystone battle. In 2011, I wrote:

If nothing else, the pipeline protesters have succeeded in breathing life into a moribund climate movement. They’ve also helped inject climate change into the political and public discourse.

Today, Keystone is a touchstone for the climate movement. The pipeline, regardless of how truly insignificant it may be to the larger climate change equation, has become symbolically powerful. It represents something deeply important to the climate-concerned community. Symbolism matters.

Just ask Al Gore. In recent television interviews, the former Vice President has been forced to explain the symbolism behind the sale of his Current TV network to Al Jazeera, which is owned and operated by an oil-rich emirate. Jon Stewart pressed Gore on the discordant perception:

You had an opportunity to make a statement probably about your principles and some people would feel, and for me as well, I thought it was an odd move. Not because of some of the other things, but because it is backed by fossil fuel money.

That Gore had come on the show to plug his new book about sustainability was an irony not lost on Stewart.

Gore received a similar grilling when he visited Matt Lauer on the Today show. Eric Wemple at the Washington Post summarizes:

So Lauer asks Gore if his sale of Current TV to a network owned by the emir of an oil-earnings-fueled Middle East country (Qatar) doesn’t smack of a contradiction. To which Gore had a lame response. “I certainly understand that criticism. I disagree with it. Because I think Al Jazeera has obviously long since established itself as a really distinguished and effective news gathering organization. And by the way, its climate coverage has been far more extensive and of high quality than any…”

Lauer came back at him, citing possible hypocrisy. Gore essentially repeated his first response.

Now Gore has been demonized (unfairly) in the conservative media for quite some time. The guy got a raw deal in 2000. The country got a raw deal, as well. (Who here thinks Gore would would have trumped up a phony war with Iraq?)  Since then, he’s made climate change his signature issue. There’s been that best-selling book and Oscar-winning movie, a Nobel Peace prize, his climate reality project, his other widely publicized essays and comments.

So whatever Gore says or does (like a a big moneyed transaction) is not going to occur in a vacuum. That may not be fair, but it is the way it is. There is climate reality and there is political reality. Gore should be an expert in both by now.

In other words, when you become known for something in particular and what you do on a grand stage doesn’t match up with what you say on that one thing, people are going to notice. And some of these people may not work for Fox News, either. They may even be sympathetic to your cause.

All decisions of import have a cost/benefit ratio. The Keystone protest leaders have likely thought through the tradeoffs and decided that the pipeline battle is a galvanizing force for their larger cause. I get that.

Al Gore is a very smart person. He undoubtedly thought through the tradeoffs of his latest business transaction with a Persian Gulf oil state. He surely anticipated what it would look like and how it might reflect on his signature cause. And he went ahead and did the deal.

I don’t get that.

 

  • http://twitter.com/SoftestPawn Martin Hill

    If you treat his activities as a business rather than a cause, then it makes fine sense. He makes more money from selling it to AJ than he will lose to… who? The people who will buy his books and pay for his lectures are already converted, and those who are and will making a lot of noise about a rather tenuous link to oil money are already unlikely to.

    The reason why there’s a lot of noise from the anti-Goreists is because the pro-Goreists (to poorly categorise a lot of people) keep going on about how oil money is supposed to be funding climate deniers using some even more tenuous links. ie, it’s a silly argument; following the money is all very well but it applies to all causes, and in the modern world of complex interrelationships and funding routes there will always be ‘links to…’

  • http://twitter.com/SoftestPawn Martin Hill

    If you treat his activities as a business rather than a cause, then it makes fine sense. He makes more money from selling it to AJ than he will lose to… who? The people who will buy his books and pay for his lectures are already converted, and those who are and will making a lot of noise about a rather tenuous link to oil money are already unlikely to.

    The reason why there’s a lot of noise from the anti-Goreists is because the pro-Goreists (to poorly categorise a lot of people) keep going on about how oil money is supposed to be funding climate deniers using some even more tenuous links. ie, it’s a silly argument; following the money is all very well but it applies to all causes, and in the modern world of complex interrelationships and funding routes there will always be ‘links to…’

    (is it me or has commenting here just become a bit harder?)

  • Tom Fuller

    You might start by remembering that Gore wasn’t the only person on his side of the table.

  • thingsbreak

    “I don’t get that.”

    If this is legitimate rather than rhetorical, then you should read (or revisit) The Assault on Reason. Gore’s appreciation for Al Jazeera is pretty easy to understand in that context.

    As to the “optics” of it, I don’t have any way to know whether it would make a difference to his climate messaging or not. There are zealot Gore defenders who obviously won’t care, and there are crazy people- who try to use his body weight or the fish served at his daughter’s wedding as proof of his hypocrisy- who weren’t going to change their minds regardless of who the buyer was.

    How many people are actually at risk of being dissuaded about climate change action because of this? I’d guess very few.

    • Buddy199

      The rank hypocrisy of their leaders rarely changes the minds of truly fanatical followers, as long as the leaders continue to sing from the same ideological hymn book. It’s ideological heresy that the fanatical mob will not tolerate.

  • harrywr2

    “Al Gore is a very smart person.”

    Are we talking about the same Al Gore who couldn’t manage to get a ‘massage’ for $500?

    Al Gore has a style of oratory that many people find compelling(others find it repulsive). No different really then Monkton of Benchly.

  • RagnarDanneskjold

    He went with aljazeera because he wanted the deal done before the tax hikes took effect, and they were willing and ready. Given his history with iraq policy, he probably would have invaded.

    I doubt he expected media attention. The NYTIMES covered it, and Fox kept it alive. He figured it would go down the memory hole,.

  • JeffN

    Symbolism is important. The Keystone protest is a symbolism without sense, which helps us understand the movement behind it. Other symbols aid us by their inconsistency. The hockey stick was a potent symbol, as is the chart showing that the handle is back. Attribution of warm weather is potent symbolicly, cold weather then becomes symbolic. Likewise, the symbolism is potent when Gore grants himself mansions on each coast and private jet travel between them while telling us we must use less energy.
    Think of it this way- if anti-war protests are to be a potent symbolic acts, they can’t disappear with a party change in the White House.
    “Who here thinks Gore would would have trumped up a phony war with Iraq?”
    Anyone familiar with the Al Gore. More Democrats in the US Senate voted for that war than against it at the time and Gore, a former senator, billed himself as a hawkish Dem. The question loses it’s power when you can accurately reply: Who here thinks that if Gore had invaded Iraq, it would be called a “trumped up” and “phony” war today in the press?

  • Tom Scharf

    “The guy got a raw deal in 2000.”

    Uhhhhh….No. If you are complaining about the electoral college than take that up with Congress. If you are speaking of the recount in FL, all the votes were recounted by a consortium of major newspapers and Bush won in 11 of the 14 recount methods (chads and all).

    “Who here thinks Gore would would have trumped up a phony war with Iraq?”

    Probably every single Democrat who voted for the war. Which is almost EVERY SINGLE DEMOCRAT in office at the time. The same Democrats who had the same access to the same intelligence info that Bush did. The same intelligence that made a bunch of other countries believe the same WMD intel. Which KK will never let go as some perceived “Bush propaganda”.

    Gore is a target rich environment. The hypocrisy quota here is extremely high. That is why he is being kept at arms length by even the greens lately. He is super polarizing.

    What is somewhat humorous is that it is evident that Gore thinks a lot more highly of Al Jazeera than Fox News. Now I think some of this is he is very likely signed on legally to make no disparaging remarks about Al Jazeera as conditions of the contract he just closed, which is common in contracts of this sort.

    • Buddy199

      Flag as inappropriate
      “The guy got a raw deal in 2000.”
      No he didn’t. Gore’s dirt squad found the Bush DWI story but held off dropping that bomb until 3 days before election day for maximum political damage. One of the slimiest tricks in modern politics which, in the great scheme of things, didn’t matter any more than Obama’s Choom Gang odessy. But even with that, karma came back to bite Al in the butt, losing by 143 votes. He got the deal he deserved.

  • Buddy199

    Al Gore is a very smart person. He undoubtedly thought through the tradeoffs of his latest business transaction with a Persian Gulf oil state. He surely anticipated what it would look like and how it might reflect on his signature cause. And he went ahead and did the deal.

    I don’t get that.

    ——————

    You don’t? Seriously?

    Al preened that he wouldn’t sell to loathsome Glenn Beck because he wanted a buyer who occupied the same progressive high ground that he struts upon. So naturally: Al Jazeera.

    It’s called cost benefit analysis. Al knows that his baloney will still be swallowed by his leftist syncophants, the only way that could stop is if he suddenly became a Republican. They’ll mutter under their breath, hem and haw and do…nothing. Nothing compared to, say, if Sarah Palin had taken $100 million in petro BLOOD MONEY FROM THOSE OIL MONSTERS AAAHHHH!!! – well, you get the idea. $100 million is well worth a small, temporary scratch on his stirling green armor. In other words, he’s a greedy, calculating phony who knows that his ideological indiscretion will be forgiven in view of the larger “cause” – just as his mentor Bill’s sexual predation was forgiven by his see-no-evil-if-he’s-one-of-ours feminist allies.

    As far as Keystone, that’s even more laughable. The Keystone XL pipeline would cross the Ogallala Aquifer for some 250 miles. To put that in perspective, there are currently almost 21,000 miles of pipelines crossing Nebraska, including almost 3,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines. Many miles of these pipelines co-exist with the Ogallala Aquifer. In addition, oil wells have been drilled and are in production within areas overlying the Ogallala Aquifer, including in western Nebraska.
    But nevermind. The eco-leftists who pose as “people of science” suddenly ignore any inconvenient scientific facts in favor of… “symbolism”. Sounds an awful lot like what those pointy-headed war-on-science religionists do. .

  • http://twitter.com/Timberati Norman Benson

    “Al Gore is a very smart person. He undoubtedly thought through the
    tradeoffs of his latest business transaction with a Persian Gulf oil
    state. He surely anticipated what it would look like and how it might
    reflect on his signature cause. And he went ahead and did the deal.

    “I don’t get that.”

    Money talks; bullshit walks.

  • gawain

    has al jazeera ever demonstrated a bias against climate change action? I don’t get the criticism of the current tv sale. personally, I think al jazeera is a great news source and a very very welcome bit of diversity in our newscape. The fact that it’s foreign and from the “Muslim world” is all the better. The fact that it’s owners and founders made their wealth in oi isn’t totally irrelevant, but nearly so. Does anyone make that argument to NGOs taking grants from the Rockefeller Foundation?

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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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