When a social cause gains momentum and becomes symbolically important, partisans inevitably hijack it for their own ends. They do this by trying to define and control the meaning of the cause and how it should be perceived. We’re seeing this play out now with the Keystone XL pipeline, which has become a touchstone for environmentalists and climate activists.
An opinion piece by John Abraham in today’s Guardian is what I would consider a textbook case for how not to communicate about a cause that you care deeply about. Abraham, an outspoken voice in the climate arena, argues that President Obama’s climate change legacy hinges on the White House’s decision on the controversial pipeline. That’s absurd. For one thing, the President already has an impressive string of accomplishments on the climate and energy front.
Secondly, it really does the climate movement no good to frame the Keystone battle in such simplistic, over-the-top terms. Doing so overstates the importance of a single pipeline, a rhetorical tactic that green friendlies have been pointing out for some time.
Then there is this passage from Abraham, which is as poisonous to his cause as it is rich in irony (my emphasis):
We in the US know that we cannot expect any meaningful action on climate change from the conservative parties. For Republicans, being anti-science and anti-environment is a litmus test to viability. It is almost a badge of honor among some conservatives to see who can out-dirty the other.
Let’s start with the unintentional irony: Greens and climate pundits like Abraham have now made Keystone a litmus test for President Obama on climate change. I mean, that’s the whole point of his Guardian piece!
The inflammatory language Abraham uses to score cheap political points against conservatives is simply asinine. Why do that? What’s to be gained? On the contrary, Abraham undercuts his argument with such puerile rhetoric. That passage above is a poster child for what Dan Kahan calls a polluted science-communication environment. In a Nature column last year, Kahan wrote (my emphasis):
People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand. Usually, this strategy works just fine. We live in a science-communication environment richly stocked with accessible, consequential facts. As a result, groups with different values routinely converge on the best evidence for, say, the value of adding fluoride to water, or the harmlessness of mobile-phone radiation. The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.
So what Abraham does with his needless flaming of conservatives, which has nothing to do with his main (and misguided) point on Keystone, is reinforce the already intensely polarized debate on climate change. Way to go! That’s really moving the ball closer to your goal line. And on top of that, his toxic language tars, by association, the anti-Keystone pipeline cause. What he’s done is pollute the science communication environment with the “anti-science, anti-environment” tropes commonly used to demonize one’s opponents.
So that’s an example of someone trying to dictate how the Keystone battle should be defined. Now let’s turn to the ruckus kicked up by Andrew Revkin when he recently suggested that climate activists might not want to put all their eggs in the Keystone basket. Revkin’s well-meaning criticism of climate tactics and strategy has been echoed by other green-friendly types, such as Michael Levi and and Jon Foley. But for some reason, it is Revkin who is singled out by the two capos of politically correct climate discourse. Lucky him. Then again, Revkin is a frequent target of climate partisans who often feel the urge to play shoot the messenger. What’s that about? I’ll put it this way: Some climate pundits are just as ruthless as political operatives when it comes to enforcing “message” control.
Now, as it happens, I still think Keystone is a laudable, if imperfect, cause for the climate movement, despite the charged rhetoric by Abraham and others. Clearly the pipeline has helped galvanize more people to care about climate change. I don’t have a problem with that for the same reason that I, as an atheist, don’t have a problem with conservative evangelicals becoming passionate environmentalists.
But partisans should wake up to how they undermine their own cause by polluting the communication landscape they also inhabit.