The Economics of Ideas in the Global Warming Debate

By Chris Mooney | April 10, 2009 8:27 am

The New York Times now profiles Morano, the howitzer of climate denial, and among many revelations, the paper has seen fit to inform us about his salary:

Mr. Morano’s new Web site is being financed by the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a nonprofit in Washington that advocates for free-market solutions to environmental issues.

Craig Rucker, a co-founder of the organization, said the committee got about a third of its money from other foundations. But Mr. Rucker would not identify them or say how much his foundation would pay Mr. Morano. (Mr. Morano says it will be more than the $134,000 he earned annually in the Senate.)

Normally, such things aren’t relevant to bring up (so one wonders why the Times did so). However, this factoid happens to dovetail closely with my last Morano post. There, I pointed out that our left wing philanthropists don’t bother creating counter-Moranos, and so, in essence, are guilty of egregiously misspending their money. Now we learn that the right wing think tanks (and right-wing Senators) pay their own climate pundits quite well. Good for Morano, honestly.

I bring this up because there are probably a dozen climate related journalists, writers, and activists out there who, given a full-time salary of $ 134,000 with benefits, might not only become an intellectual warrior on the opposite of the issue from Morano, but could perhaps be as good at the game or better. I’m not one of them–among other reasons, I think this work, and this life, would grow intellectually dull very quickly.

But my point is that being a counter-Morano simply isn’t there as a career path, for me or anyone else who actually wants to defend good science on global warming.

Prepping for media appearances doesn’t pay. Coming up with talking points doesn’t pay. Op-eds and blogging barely pay. The market does not produce careers in doing these things on its own; it takes actual money to support such careers.

This is, in essence, the core of the failure of the left, on the politics of science and on much else–basic economics, applied to the dissemination of ideas.

Comments (14)

  1. Really good point Chris, and one not discussed enough. And this incentive disparity reaches far beyond climate change in terms of approach to important policy issues between camps.

  2. Scott Robertson

    While your point is well made the “job” of being a critic of global warming is much, much different than defending the position. Just ask Gavin Schmidt at realclimate how long it takes to refute ridiculous ideas from non-scientists. As a critic you simply throw darts and overstate weaknesses and this involves little if any research. This isn’t a 2-sided scientific debate where massive research and investigation is going on on both sides. The science is what it is. The politics of it is where Morano and others will thrive and because of the massive economic consequences of taking action against climate change the amount of money available to fund opposition is almost limitless.

  3. While this is a valid point, I am not sure it should be one touted often because it will give our “intellectual” opponents an unnecessary reason to claim that we are indulging in ad hominem attacks. Here’s what they will say; how does that make us different then from the right-wingers who attack Noam Chomsky for his investment in a trust fund for his grandchildren, for the expensive mansion in which he lives, or for the high fees organizations sometimes pay him to speak?

    Plus, the very fact that Morano’s website-sponsoring organization pushes for free-market solutions to environmental issues is not enough of a reason to suspect them. While Morano does not seem to be in this category, one can very well wholeheartedly believe in climate change and favor free-market incentives over government intervention in addressing the problem. One can have a respectful debate with such people.

    So while your point is taken, I think it would be a better idea to focus on refuting statements with facts, as you most graciously usually do.

  4. Carman

    The issue isn’t that Morano is well paid for what he does, but that there exists a position for what he does in the first place. More importantly, it’s that there isn’t a correlating position on our side. The climate change skeptics have an entire machinery set in place to come up with better arguments and talking points. This isn’t about science or research but about rhetoric and essentially boils down t the persistent failure of those on the left to fund a good PR campaign. Having the facts on your side isn’t always enough.

  5. Hi Carman,
    Exactly what I’m trying to get at…..Ashutosh, this isn’t intended as an attack, and I hope none will read it that way. Seriously, good for Morano. It’s an observation about the economics of this debate and why we lose it….

  6. That’s the problem; for them it’s still mostly about rhetoric. For us it’s about the science, which unfortunately does not always sound exciting.

  7. Carman

    Ashutosh, we agree that the same thing is a problem, but maybe for slightly different reasons.

    Not too long ago, I spent an hour at a bar trying to convince a pretty smart guy that the dew point was really not at all related to climate change. His argument was confusing, convoluted, and ultimately very seductive if you didn’t know a lot about science. He didn’t come up with the argument on his own. There’s a team of very smart people formulating and disseminating these arguments, and they’ve got all the resources they need to do so.

    That we have scientific facts behind us should strengthen our rhetorical position but doesn’t mean we don’t need to have one. We can be right all day long and still lose the argument if we fail to convince everyone else that we’re right. Framing a debate takes time and talent, and ultimately it takes money, too.

  8. Erasmussimo

    There is certainly a fundamental point to be considered here, expressed in the old adage from Watergate: follow the money. Who stands to gain money and who stands to lose money from the response to AGW? The skeptics emit an inky barrage of accusations that advocates of AGW are just in it for the money. They never explain how this might happen; they wave their arms around and talk about government money, but they never get specific. They can’t point to anybody who’s getting rich supporting AGW.

    By contrast, there are a lot of interests that stand to lose a lot of money if we take AGW seriously. All the fossil fuel companies, all the companies that use fossil fuels in large amounts — this is going to cost them billions and billions of dollars. And so it’s a good investment on their part to finance opposition to AGW.

    So yes, the money favors the opponents of AGW. In general, I would be reluctant to argue this point, because it is ultimately invidious. Moreover, we don’t need it; we have the science on our side. And politically we’re winning.

    However, there is an ugly hypothesis that bears consideration: the possibility that opponents of AGW are paying sock puppets to argue their case online. “On the Internet, nobody knows that you’re a dog.” There certainly seems to be an army of such people out there, and their online presence far exceeds their presence in the real world. Out in the real world, these people are generally regarded as extremists; here on the Internet, they are ubiquitous. I certainly don’t want to advance some sort of dark conspiracy theory; I suspect that some fraction of the online opponents of AGW are sincere if misinformed. For them, this is an expression of the culture wars. Just look at the vituperation they vomit forth — clearly this is not a scientific issue for them, but a deeply emotional one. Indeed, I would expect that any paid sock puppets would be much more reasonable in their approach, the better to undermine confidence.

    Why these people are motivated by such anger and hate is another question entirely.

  9. You make a great point, Chris. Which sadly, most of these commenters are largely eliding in favor of character analyses of the opposition.

    People who want to tell the public the facts about phenomena like global warming — let’s call them “environmental journalists” if they strive to be apolitical, and “activists” if they see themselves as blatant actors within or against “the system” — must generally undertake the same amount of investment and expense as those who, for whatever reasons, end up employed at spreading disinformation about these same phenomena. The same years of costly education, and “apprenticeships” via internships and low-paying early jobs. The same costs of life, such as medical bills, overdue fees at the library, vacations, rent-slash-mortgage, raising progeny, gifts for family members on their birthdays, the occasional purchase of some insane luxury like a piece of jewelry or a nice pair of shoes. Etcetera.

    However, do-badders can look forward to an endlessly rising ceiling of pay and professional opportunities to make all this up. While, the pay ceiling is about waist high for the do-good opposite numbers of the Marc Moranos.

    My own (somewhat tongue in cheek) theory about why this is, is that right wingers don’t have a fundamental ethical problem with wanting and having money, as a concept or a reality. While liberals, progressives, and leftists, who need to position themselves against the abuses of “the system,” even when they ARE the system, distrust money, and disdain the notion that anyone who wants to make good money really sincerely cares about doing good. And God knows they must be sincere!

    Some keep hoping they’ll wake up in the antiseptic Star Trek future where we’ve overcome the need for dirty money and can just get on with doing the good work.

    Others actually are making good money, but have to dissemble so much about it to maintain the appearance of ideological purity, that nothing fundamental changes. (See the right-wing attacks on Al Gore’s investment endeavors for demonstration of this phenomenon turned into an enemy weapon. Kudos to Mr. Gore’s business acumen, sez I, and imagine how much better things might become if Royal Dutch Shell followed his lead.)

    I don’t know what excuse the environmental journalists have, however. Like any journos, we’re certainly cynical enough to have known from the start what we were getting ourselves into. ;)

  10. You are all right. That is why we should all invest a small amount of time writing for local consumption. Today, I had an Earth Day column in my local newspaper. The Morgan Hill, (CA) Times. It did not take long to write… some may think that I should have taken longer. I have done this for several years and, over time, the number of letters to the editor that support green positions is increasing and the number of de-nihilist comments has dropped to near zero.

    This battle will not be won by fighting it out on the pages of the Gray Lady or the Washington Post. The Morano’s of the world do not have enough people, time or money to takes us all on in every venue that we can find. It we really want to win this argument, it will come though organized, planned, grassroots efforts.

    If you have read Chris’s columns, write your own. That is how we win.

  11. MadScientist

    Let me get this straight: we need a loud mindless parrot to get people on side?

    Well, maybe you can find one in Australia; looking at this ad:

    http://www.cawcr.gov.au/jobs/PCCSP.php

    it is apparent that loudmouths are far more important than scientists.

    It is quite a dilemma; how do you at least get the policy makers to listen when you’ve got some very loud headless chickens? We can’t really pay a loudspeaker like Morano to do the talking because they’ll be spreading even more untruths.

    It doesn’t help that newspapers enjoy printing anything ‘controversial’ even if it is Dr. X vs the local garbage collector.

  12. Phaedrus

    Let’s look at your business model – you want scientist to divert some of their hardwon money away from their love, science, and put it towards advocacy (good luck with that). Alternatively, you want some raggedy left wing advocacy groups to match dollars with the largest corporations on the planet (strike two). Last resort, find someone with deep enough pockets and an environmental conscience to spearhead this kind of position (can you say Al Gore – how’s that working out).
    Listening to you guys is like watching the underpants gnomes develop their strategy. Scientists do science, advocacy people don’t have a pot to piss in, business people have money.
    The bottom line is public education. Children need to understand good science so they grow up into responsible adults. Science needs to be made a part of our governance. Yelling at old people on the TV is a fools errand.
    Until businesses feel the pinch of global warming (and that’s where the money is) then there will be no funded advocates.

  13. Jon Winsor

    A good debater or speaker who can get a point across to a wide range of audiences isn’t a “mindless parrot.”

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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