I didn’t come of age in the 60s and early 70s, but I know my history. I know that the U.S. fractured over the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement. I know that Americans took sides on the home front and that this turned kitchen tables, universities, and streets into battle zones. Families and friendships were torn asunder. Entrenched values and norms were challenged. Yes, it was a turbulent time. But the the passions and stakes were high. Such is the messy, unpredictable landscape of social change.
As Jefferson Airplane sang in 1969:
Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution Got to revolution
I am certain I would not have been on the sidelines. Read More
Incredibly, that was the facile theme of Piers Morgan’s latest (ridiculous) foray into the climate debate. Can somebody at CNN please bring Morgan into the 21st century? We are no longer debating whether global warming is real or not. That train has left the station.
And CNN having two activists on opposite ends of the spectrum holding forth on this does not advance the debate we should be having, which is: What energy policies would help us get off fossil fuels as fast as possible. Here’s the inane (and mercifully short) exchange, if you can stand it.
UPDATE: Randy Olson on why debating Marc Morano is “a no win situation.”
As you undoubtedly heard, climate change was mentioned prominently by President Obama in his second inaugural speech. Greens are applauding the strong words but based on his record (or lack thereof) on the climate issue (some believe he is unfairly maligned), and his lofty (unfulfilled) 2008 promises, many are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Meanwhile, what to make of the President’s surprising elevation of climate change into the public discourse? Let’s game out a few of the possibilities. Fair warning: What follows is a mixed metaphor palooza. Read More
Everybody knows the global politics of climate change are leading nowhere. If the futile UN-sponsored talks illustrates one thing, it is that no country is willing to make economic sacrifices to reduce its carbon emissions. Roger Pielke Jr. calls this the iron law of climate policy. It’s proving ironclad.
That essentially leaves us with one option: Getting off fossil fuels altogether. Right now, such a prospect is not looking good. We seem to be flush with oil and gas these days–and the foreseeable future. That puts us on a collision course with climate disaster. So what do we do?
There are two camps that claim to have the answer. One of them believes that nuclear power is the only viable substitute for coal, which remains cheap, plentiful and the primary greenhouse gas responsible for cooking the planet. The other camp believes that renewable energy puts us on a true path to a sustainable planet. Which of these camps offers the best way to kick our carbon addiction?
That’s the subject of a new piece I have up at Slate.
One of the most trenchant observers of the science/policy interface is Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes. Since 2009, Sarewitz has been a regular columnist for the journal Nature. He writes for both general and specialized audiences. His insightful essays, on everything from the politics of climate change to the science versus religion fracas, often provoke heated debate. I suppose that’s to be expected, given the charged terrain he navigates.
I had a brief Q & A with Sarewitz this week (via email), related to several of his Nature columns, including his latest in the current issue.
KK: You have a new piece out in Nature that takes a dim view of those who mix science and politics. You argue that the science community has come to be seen as too closely allied with the Democratic party. But haven’t there always been politically active scientists?
DS: I don’t take a dim view of mixing science and politics at all. I take a dim view of pretending that you’re not mixing them when you really are. I’m a Democrat, probably far left of much of the party, and I think it’s great for scientists to participate in politics. Just like it’s great for other citizens. What I don’t think is that one can legitimately hide behind one’s identity as a scientist in taking a position that is fundamentally a political one.
In his first post-election press conference, President Obama received a question on climate change. What he said was likely reassuring, encouraging, and infuriating–all at once–to the climate concerned community. To understand why, read this post by Will Oremus at Slate. He helpfully translates and boils down Obama’s 601 word response to four short sentences:
1) Climate change is real. 2) We have an obligation to future generations to do something about it. 3) Doing something about it will require tough political choices. 4) I’m not willing to make those tough political choices.
Others walked away with a sunnier view. For example, because the President promised to advance a long-term climate agenda (that mostly includes building bipartisan support for action), the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg is encouraged. The headline of her article:
Obama vows to take personal charge of climate change in second term
Yes, that’s a bit odd-sounding, but I think you get the point. Meanwhile, Stephen Stromberg in the Washington Post wasn’t as impressed as Goldenberg. What Obama offered up, Stromberg wrote, “hardly signals an ambition in proportion to the size of the [climate] problem.”
Indeed, for those that trumpet the urgency of climate change, I suspect that Politico’s Glenn Thrush captured their sentiment in this tweet:
Very candid answer on climate change that will anger left: Obama says carbon regulation last in line behind taxes, jobs and immigration.
Here’s an excerpt of Obama’s comments, which I think reflects his mindset on the climate issue:
I don’t know what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because this is one of those issues that’s not just a partisan issue; I also think there are regional differences. There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices. And understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.
If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.
The contradictions in the climate debate make my head hurt. For years, we’ve been hearing that one of the biggest impediments to action is that people aren’t sufficiently alarmed and informed about global warming. And that this owes, in large part, to a collective media failing. Here’s Joe Romm in 2010:
The dreadful media coverage simply creates little space for rational public discourse. The media has for a long time downplayed the importance of the issue, miscovered key aspects of the debate, given equal time to pro-pollution disinformers, and generally failed to inform the public.
I don’t agree with this assessment; on the whole, there is ample evidence that belies Romm’s broad brush. Nonetheless, the media remains a convenient scapegoat for many in the climate concerned community. (How journalism is responsible for the failure of 20 years of international climate talks escapes me.) In any case, whoever/whatever is at fault, a bigger problem implied by Romm is the lack of “rational public discourse.”
But in recent years social scientists and cognitive researchers have been telling us that our brains are not equipped to respond rationally to climate change, which is now widely understood to be a “wicked” problem. Several days ago, this theme was discussed in a NY Times piece:
We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.
“You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
What he means by that is that our evolutionary brains are not built to deal with climate change. The danger signal that evolved in response to immediate threats to our survival through much of human history isn’t activated by the diffused and delayed impacts of greenhouse gases. To understand this is to understand that our behavior–even in the present technologically advanced era–is largely governed by evolutionary forces.
So if hostile aliens invaded the earth today I imagine the world would instantly come together in common cause. So far, the looming threat of climate change has not done that. Will it anytime soon? Unlikely.
But back to that Times article. For some reason I cannot fathom, it triggered an angry reaction from Romm. In short, he argues that the piece glossed over the political and ideological obstacles to climate action. Instead of blaming politicians, the media and the “anti-science pro-pollution ideologues” (you know who you are!), we were
subjected to a bunch of psychoanalysis and social science research about how we all have a mental block to solving the climate problem.
I think I know who has the mental block here.
I’m also starting to wonder if every article on climate change should carry this disclaimer: “This message was not approved by Joe Romm. It may not emphasize the full scope of the climate change-triggered apocalyptic death spiral of the human race, and it may not fully emphasize the full culpability of journalists, climate deniers, and all Republicans. May the climate Gods have mercy on my soul.”
Seriously, as one commenter at Romm’s site says, the author of the Times piece
wasn’t undertaking to comment on politics, or acting as an apologist for why a climate bill wasn’t passed. She wasn’t drawing a sharp moral judgment call between us, the people, and the politicians in Washington. It is a classic case of “our” blog looking for a difference of opinion “” a reason to take off the gloves “” when one did not exist.
So, I don’t see the purpose or the advantage gained from jumping down the throats of every individual who comments on some aspect of climate change who does not also, first and foremost, parrot the particular theme “” federal political inaction, is it? “” “everyone” here wants to hear.
Now I’m not saying that politics isn’t an important part of the equation. Perhaps the 2009 cap & trade legislation that died in the U.S. Senate would have put us on a path to somewhere hopeful. A lot of smart people were dubious about that, but still latched on–rationalizing that any path is better than the ditch we’ve been in for two decades. And now with one of the major U.S. political parties embracing a rejectionist stance on climate science, I can appreciate the pent up frustration of folks who correctly see no desire by either political party to talk about climate change, much less help chart a new path to a decarbonized world. But I’m willing to bet that this changes as soon as the economy fully recovers and the unemployment rate drops to Clinton Administration levels.
Meanwhile, what might change this dynamic (at least in the United States)? A large enough bloc of committed, passionate voters that makes its voice heard in Washington. A couple of hundred people chanting outside the White House gates isn’t going to do it. It has to be a sustained, organized movement. Something nourished at the grassroots that spreads and multiplies throughout congressional districts. Can Bill McKibben pull that off? Al Gore should give him his Nobel if he does.
Because there are no shortcuts. Greens and climate activists shouldn’t count on sporadic heat waves and wildfires to do the work for them. This is crucial because extreme weather and disasters has become crack cocaine to the climate community. Many of them are now hooked. And they come crashing down once the heat breaks and global warming disappears from the headlines. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Paul Krugman in his last column:
When the mercury is high and the crops are withering, everyone talks about it, and some make the connection to global warming. But let the days grow a bit cooler and the rains fall, and inevitably people’s attention turns to other matters.
That’s a problem for a climate movement that looks good on the web but is a paper tiger in the real world. So what’s the game plan, other than beating up on the media and evil deniers? Paradoxically, more fossil fuels (in the short term), as Michael Tobis suggests here (my emphasis):
Our only hope is in the long game, and the sustained cultural shift. We have lost the decade already; by driving the world to the edge of economic chaos the Bush administration settled it for us. We need to recover the prosperity of the 90s before we take another run at major infrastructure and policy change. The new energy supplies will make this relatively easy.
Meanwhile we have to build a world which understands what is going on. Before there is deeper understanding (and more international trust) there will be no significant progress.
Many people already understand what is going on, of course, but never mind that. Once they have a steady job again and can make the monthly mortgage payment, their lizard brains will be receptive to a “cultural shift.”
The partisan climate debate seems to surprise those who don’t normally swim in its treacherous waters. Joe Nocera, a NYT business columnist, appears taken aback by his experience this week, which he discusses today:
Here’s the question on the table today: Can a person support the Keystone XL oil pipeline and still believe that global warming poses a serious threat?
To my mind, the answer is yes. The crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, which the pipeline would transport to American refineries on the Gulf Coast, simply will not bring about global warming apocalypse. The seemingly inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions is the result of deeply ingrained human habits, which will not change if the pipeline is ultimately blocked. The benefits of the oil we stand to get from Canada, via Keystone, far outweigh the environmental risks.
When I tried to make that case on Tuesday, however, I was cast as a global warming “denier.” Joe Romm, who edits the Climate Progress blog, said that I had joined “the climate ignorati.” Robert Redford “” yes, that Robert Redford “” denounced my column in The Huffington Post. “Let’s put the rhetoric aside, and simply focus on the facts,” he wrote.
Let’s put rhetoric aside.
Heh. Such a quaint notion. Because if there’s one thing that characterizes the public climate debate, it’s rhetoric that turns facts upside down.
On the other side of the spectrum, for example, you could get lost in the funhouse at Powerline, a politically conservative website that twisted a recent paper in Nature to declare of climate science: “And the house of cards starts to come down.”
It’s fun watching these guys fall on their face in real time. The whole circus is falling apart much faster than I expected. I can tell you that around Washington the whole climate change angle is slowly being dropped from conversation about everything. It’s almost like talking with normal people again.
Today, what passes for normal in the climate conversation is hyperbole and distortion.
Someone I have a lot of respect for says all the Durban bashing is misinformed. To those who argue that the recent climate summit in South Africa produced nothing of consequence, Andrew Light counters:
The fact is that not only did Durban produce a package of agreements essential for any hope of a meaningful contribution to mitigation and adaptation to climate change out of this forum, but it also avoided a disaster that would have sent this process back to where it started in 1992.
Light makes a strong, detailed case for why the climate community should be more appreciative of the lemonade made out of the lemons:
Those who claim Durban is a failure are missing the big picture. It emerged out of an incredibly hard process with multiple trip wires for failure. If there is going to be an international agreement (or cluster of them) that helps bend down emissions to get us to the goals we need to achieve then Durban will be seen as essential to getting there.